Blog Archives for the ‘Cruising’ Category
Juneau, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past couple of years has been pretty straightforward:
Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there this summer will buy its pricier versions.
For Stauffer, that meant getting the lumberjacks, dog mushers, gold-panners, helicopter pilots, totem-pole carver, glacier guides, train conductors and fishing boat operators to come up with something distinctively better.
Disney passengers can dress in protective gear and get a helicopter ride to a glacier near Juneau, then set off with ice axes to explore.
To achieve that, the manager of Disney Cruise’s Port Adventures (the Mouse’s term for excursions) twice flew from Orlando to Alaska, sampling about 20 excursions, then meeting with the operators.
“I absolutely challenged them to come back to us with ideas that were different for Disney. I told them we would be coming with 1,000 kids, told them what we already do on our existing itineraries,’’ Stauffer told me as he led a media tour to the ports last fall.
The Disney Wonder begins the first of 18, one-week voyages May 3 from Vancouver. It will call on Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Here’s a sampling of the Wonder’s up-market excursions it terms the Signature Collection:
Ketchikan – A popular tour visits Totem Bight State Historical Park, for a walkabout and explanation of the symbolism represented by its 14 totem poles. The Signature Collection touch takes place at the adjacent Potlatch Totem Park:
Youngsters help create a new totem pole, portraying a sea monster. Each child will be given paints and a piece of wood bearing a stenciled design – either feathers or gills for the monster. Each newly painted piece will be attached to the 20-foot-tall pole, to be finished by the end of the summer season.
For something flashier, the long-running Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is down-sizing logs and equipment, for shows performed just for Wonder passengers.
Youngsters get to try their hand at a special version of the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, in Ketchikan.
The lumberjacks will select about 10 children — as young as 5 – to take part in pint-sized versions of several stunts.
Skagway — The famed White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, an engineering marvel when built between 1898 and 1900, carried about 365,000 tourists in 2010 on its 27-mile, narrated, trip.
For those Wonder passengers selecting to upgrade, White Pass will form special Disney trains, carrying up to 120. They will get the standard trip as the train chugs up the mountain pass for about 100 minutes.
But Signature Collection passengers will stay onboard for the return trip, rather than getting into buses. On the downhill ride, kids will be placed in their own railcar. They will get special activity books, including an I-spy bingo style game to keep them checking the slowly passing scenery.
The White Pass & Yukon Route railroad climbs through the same passes as it did when built for the Yukon gold rush.
There also will be a costumed character – either a railroad figure or a prospector — spinning tales of the gold rush era.
The passengers are then taken to train the attraction named Liarsville. Here, Wonder passengers will watch an exclusive performance of a puppet show and listen to costumed staff explain that the gold prospectors had to carry about a ton of goods to help them survive the harsh winter.
The kids will be sent on a scavenger hunt for those supplies, in the tent village that is Liarsville. Next, the youngsters will try panning for gold flakes, with help from the Liarsville staff – and Donald Duck, resplendent in a traditional and matching ear-flaps hat.
Juneau — Perhaps the most-spectacular of the Signature Collection trips occurs out of Juneau, atop the Upper Norris Glacier.
In a typical summer, helicopter operator Tim Cudney (cq) and 16-time Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler (cq) will haul about 10,000 passengers up to the glacier and put them on two-mile loops around the glacier in dog sleds. According to Cudney, “It is a life-changing experience … We have people (saying) this is on their bucket list.’’
And that’s without the tourists’ getting to put booties on the dogs to protect their paws – just one of the add-ons fashioned for the Signature passengers. They will also select the lead dog, then help harness the dogs to the sled.
Finally, these passengers can take the place of the professional musher – though youngsters will be just holding the sled’s handles while the pro stands behind them on the runners. The trips will be doubled to about four miles.
Also, Fiedler said, “We’ll show them how 150 dogs and 20 people can live on the glacier in a tent city, without flush toilets and light switches.’’
For more information
For rates, sailing dates and more information about the Disney Wonder, consult a travel agent or go to http://disneycruise.disney.go.com.
It’s getting so a cruise passenger can’t even stroll the 1,115-foot-long ship in private without launching interactivity.
Which is exactly what the creative gang at the Walt Disney conglomerate, the Imagineers, has been planning for years.
The venue is the company’s first new ship since 1999, the 4,000-passenger Disney Dream. It began sailing from Port Canaveral, Fla., on Jan. 26. And aboard this vessel, technology rules, in clever and entertaining ways.
For instance, in 22 places along the corridors of the Dream, framed images from classics such as Bambi and Fantasia are actually LCD screens. They change — thanks to motion detectors — from a static image to several seconds of the film when passengers approach. Soon, facial recognition software will insure that individual guests see a different loop the next time they approach the frame.
A dad helps his son solve one of the mysteries that play on the Enchanted Art frames in public spaces aboard the Dream.
Passengers can even play detective, solving different mysteries by passing a special card in front of some of those frames, which read a bar code on the card and then display a clue.
Speaking of animation, a starring role aboard the ship goes to Crush, the surfer-dude sea turtle from Finding Nemo. A few years ago, the Imagineers introduced an interactive version of Crush to the theme parks: Youngsters face a huge LED screen, onto which the animated turtle swims. He asks specific kids their names, jokes with them, answers their questions.
On the ship, Crush reprises this act on a 103-inch plasma screen in the Oceaneer’s Club, hangout for the 3- to 10-year-old set. But Crush is also the headliner in the Animator’s Palate, one of three restaurants passengers use on a planned rotation for dinners.
When diners enter, the 696-seat Palate is decorated as a studio where Walt Disney and his colleagues might have worked in the 1930s. Giant pencils and paint brushes stand upright in the room, while wallboards hold notes and character sketches.
But during the meal, the room changes, seemingly submerging into the waters occupied by Crush and his undersea pals. On more than 100 TV monitors of varying sizes, these creatures flit about, and Crush visits with diners in nine sections of the room.
While youngsters pick up on Crush immediately, adults unfamiliar with him are sometimes caught off-guard when he questions them directly: “Yo, dude in the red shirt! How’s it going, man? Where are you from? … Dude? Red-shirt guy?’’
The technological innovations are not all child’s play aboard the Dream:
/ Seven large “windows’’ of the Skyline bar each day show a different cityscape – New York, Rio or Paris, for instance – though the ship sails to none of these places. Light or shadows play out in real time during the day as the sun crosses above that city, and sharp-eyed viewers can see cars moving on the streets. The windows are actually LED screens.
In the District, the bar Skyline features LED monitors displaying video of city skylines such as Rio
/ Inside cabins, which have no actual window on the world, do have a live view of the what’s happening outside the hull, courtesy of five high-definition TV cameras. The playful Imagineers also have arranged that one of three dozen animated images randomly flashes on to the real picture. You might see Peach, the starfish from Nemo
, or characters seeming to trot around the inside frame of the “porthole.’’
Those LED screens were a clever plan by cruise executives: “Ordinarily, inside cabins are those least-desired by passengers,’’ Karl Holz, cruise line president, told me onboard in mid-January. But when word spread over the Internet about the “virtual portholes,’’ the inside cabins quickly sold out.
What’s likely to become the Dream’s icon is hard to miss: the 765-foot long, enclosed waterslide named the AquaDuck.
A line of passengers winds up the stairway to the entrance of the AquaDuck, as a raft shoots through the 765-foot-long water coaster
Mounted 150 feet above the waterline and passing down both sides of the ship, the water coaster is a transparent tube, 54 inches in diameter, through which pumps force more than 9,000 gallons of water. Passengers sit on two-person rubber rafts and are immediately thrust into a 360-degree loop that carries them over the side of the ship for about 12 feet, before returning them to the first long, straight part of the ride.
They pass through the forward funnel, then again parallel the hull for another 335 feet, before ending about 46 feet below where they started.
The general design of the Dream avoids the current boxy look of mega ships, with a pronounced prow and an added curve of metal sweeping down several decks of staterooms, near the stern.
Interiors blend touches of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and of course, Disney whimsy. There’s no chance passengers will forget that the parent company grew from cartoons to beloved, full-length animated films.
There’s plenty to amuse adults, too, such as four themed bars – a sports pub, a champagne bar, etc. — plus a disco, grouped in the area termed The District, and adults-only fine-dining restaurants, one Italian, one French.
The Italian restaurant is the 118-seat Palo, already a fixture on the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder. This venue alternates rich fabrics on its banquettes, displays its wines in custom-made leather holders, and its private room has a window on the kitchen. Dinner here is a $20 surcharge per person.
Custom-made leather wine bottles holders are a fixture in Palo.
More upscale is the French room, Remy, which seats just 65 for once-a-night servings designed to last three hours. It boasts a pair of five-course dinners on a menu designed jointly by a French chef with two Michelin stars and by the American chef responsible for consistently earning five AAA diamonds and five Mobil stars for the Victoria and Albert restaurant, in the Disney parks’ Grand Floridian hotel.
Said V&A chef Scott Hunnel, Remy’s kitchen eschews gas for electricity, because open flame is not allowed on the ship. This changes some cooking times but, Hunnel added, “Some of the apparatus is better than we have in the landside kitchens.’’
Remy offers appetizers such as langostino and smoked bison.
Though Remy takes its name and even some deft design elements from a rat who is the leading character in the animated film Ratatouille
, there’s no kidding around about the price: $75 per person for just the food, $99 if you also want the wine pairings.
Still, the purposely limited capacity of the gourmet restaurants means relatively few members of the average shipload of passengers is going to leave the Dream happily recalling a meal there. Instead, it is the clever gadgetry, big and small, that they’ll be telling friends about.
Just as the Disney executives planned:
“The best part of having designers and Imagineers working at our parks is being able to bring their knowledge to the ships,’’ said Bruce Vaughn, executive vice president of the Imagineers told me. “We have to pack it differently onboard because of space considerations, but we have the guests with us longer.’’
Added the company’s senior president for creative services, Joe Lanzisero:
“We’re creating the future – things never seen before.’’
If you go
For more information or to make reservations, contact a travel agent or go to http://disneycruise.disney.go.com.
The Rauma train passes by the mighty Trollveggen, which juts 1,000 feet up. © Leif J Olestad.
Andalsnes, Norway – Even at the purposely slow pace of 38 miles per hour, there is no clickety-clack, clickety-clack on the Rauma Railway. That sort of noise was eliminated long ago, when the Norwegian State Railways (the NSB) modernized its rolling stock.
It’s just as well there is no noise to distract passengers from enjoying the landscape of what the NSB proclaims is “the most beautiful train journey.’’ So the engineer keeps the speed at less than half its maximum — even stops the cars — to let amateur photographers onboard photograph waterfalls, mountains and lush valleys, bridges and the Rauma River itself.
A crowd-pleaser is the Trollveggen, the Troll Wall, which soars more than 1,000 feet above the valley floor and is Europe’s tallest vertical rock face.
“Most of our train routes are for pleasure, while other nations use trains just for transportation,’’ says Wenche Berger, international sales manager for NSB. “We need to increase our capacity, to serve more passengers.’’ Indeed, the only high-speed run in the entire country is between Oslo and its international airport.
The scenery never quits
The Art Nouveau town of Alesund, viewed from a scenic overlook. Robert N. Jenkins.
But the rolling stock on the five designated sightseeing lines is user-friendly, and the 71-mile Rauma Railway is typical:
Passengers ride in 73-seat, air-conditioned, toilet-equipped cars with leather seats in the “Comfort Class’’, fabric in second class. There are vending machines but no bistro car, which on other NSB trains means a bartender/cook selling prepared cold sandwiches, snacks beverages and the popular Norwegian hot dogs.
On the sightseeing routes, reservations are recommended for the high season – typically the last weekend of May through the end of August. On the Rauma route, 47 percent of 2009’s 78,000 passengers traveled just during those three months.
What they get in 90 minutes is a 2,000-foot descent through spectacular landscape. The horizon is filled by mountains that climb as high as 4,800 feet, plus Trollveggen’s shorter cousins, inspiring waterfalls – the Vermafossen drops 1,181 feet – and the dramatic Kylling Bridge. Here, the train must double back through two tunnels to drop down and traverse the bridge, crossing 182 feet above the Rauma.
Even the river itself changes colors, from water so clear the sandy bottom looks like a Caribbean seashore, to a hurrying, emerald-colored stream infused with glacial silt.
The Rauma route is conveniently reached by a train from Oslo to the town of Domblas, a 212-mile ride that offers relaxing but less impressive scenery. The Rauma train departs twice daily from Domblas to Andalsnes, a cruise port on a fjord that is a popular base for trekking through area highlands and canoeing on the Rauma.
Step back in time
But many arriving Rauma passengers then catch a bus onward to the charming town of Alesund, a Norwegian Sea port that was largely destroyed by fire in January 1904 and quickly rebuilt in the then-popular Art Nouveau style. Dozens of those buildings, their facades adorned with typical artistic flourishes, dominate the compact downtown area.
A museum tells the story on the fire and of Art Nouveau. The museum, Jurgendstilsenteret, is in the former town pharmacy; over three floors are old photos, a movie with English subtitles, architectural models and period pieces from both the family that lived over the pharmacy, including their rich dining room, and other Nouveau objects. A free walking tour pamphlet directs visitors to more than 20 of the historic buildings.
Alesund also boasts an art district. Visitors and locals can see artists working in glass (you’ll wonder how Ingird Ulla can let her tabby kitten wander about the display shelves in her studio/workshop) and in wood – Peter Opsvik’s gracefully bold service pieces have been shown both in museums and in galleries throughout the U.S.
The town, though a major commercial fishing port, is also a tourist destination for exploring nearby fjords, mountains and fishing opportunities. There’s also a popular daytrip into one of the most beautiful fjords, Geirangerfjord, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
To round out a sampling of Norway’s popular transportation styles, visitors often book aboard the nightly departure from Alesund on the famed Hurtigruten.
Once the coastal villages’ cargo and mail lifeline, Hurtigruten is now much more a passenger and car ferry. Cabins, each with a bathroom, range in size across the 13-ship fleet, but each vessel has dining rooms, lounges and accessible deck space for viewing the passing coastline, isolated fishing villages and fjords.
All Hurtigruten vessels take either six or seven days to run between Kirkenes, a port well north of the Arctic Circle near the Russian border, and Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city. From Alesund headed south, it is a midnight departure and a 2:30 p.m. arrival the next day.
Into Medieval times
Bergen, a thoroughly modern city sprawling past the mouth of another fjord, boasts fascinating remnants from its centuries as one of the four “offices’’ of the dominant German merchant organization, the Hanseatic League.
Just along the busy, touristy, wharf, visitors can wander through the 450-year-old fortress complex focused on the Rosenkrantz Tower, then walk past 11 structures that are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and turn up narrow alleys passing renovated medieval warehouses.
Also on the wharf is the well-done three-storey Hanseatic Museum, in a preserved merchant house that was simultaneously a dormitory for workers, office space and cod-storage area. A film, furnishings and artifacts explain the life of the trading city life from 1360 to 1754.
Bergen also boasts a number of other ancient buildings and modern museums focused on art, maritime heritage and natural history, including the oddly affecting Leprosy Museum, in a centuries-old hospital that cared for victims into the 20th century.
If you go
More than a half-dozen carriers fly between North America and Oslo International Airport. For more information on the transportation and destinations mentioned in the article, go to the following web sites:
Norwegian State Railways: www.nsb.no/home
Both the train from Oslo to Dombas and the Rauma Railway are included in the Eurailpass, a network of discounted rail tickets in 21 Western and Central European nations. The pass can be bought for various numbers of travel days over various periods of time, and it can be bought for any one of the participating nations, for three to five nations, for a region or for all 21 countries.
For visitors who plan to see more than jut a couple of destinations, any of the options is a cost-savings over buying individual tickets. For details, go to www.eurail.com.
Aboard the Ryndam – This isn’t your grandmother’s Holland America fleet.
More hot bars – one featuring a flight of six mini martinis — an Italian specialty restaurant carved from the pool deck’s buffet-line eatery, smart seating in the big theater room.
Also, more denim, more Miller Lite, a tiny disco just for teens …
At 15 years, four months, the Ryndam is one of the oldest of the 14 ships in the fleet of the venerable Holland America line. For decades, HAL catered to retirees. Instead of midnight blue, its hulls could have been painted the blue rinse color favored by little old ladies.
Opting for a makeover to lure younger passengers, the company – owned by the industry’s Big Dog, Carnival Corp. – rolled out its Signature of Excellence makeover. Think plastic surgery, Botox, wardrobe adviser – everything short of tattoos and piercings. But some of the new passengers are bringing those aboard.
Starting in 2005, HAL revamped everything from floor to ceiling: higher-thread counts on the sheets atop the new memory foam mattresses, metal ice buckets in place of plastic, flat-screen TVs and DVD players in the cabins, new case goods and drapes …
That was then. But the 1,270-passenger Ryndam is very much now.
It has just come out of a rapid-fire drydock makeover that in 14 days physically changed the original structure.
Instead of a flat level for seating on the lower level of the two-deck main showroom, the Vermeer, now there are five terraces of couches and chairs.
Gone is the enclosed Piano Bar and the casino’s bar featuring overhead TVs tuned to sports shows. The walls were taken down from the Piano Bar opening a horizontal slice of the public space converted into three themed bars: martinis, champagne and beer and top-shelf liquors.
No walls, so you can walk from one casual seating group to another, or between stools at the two bars. The piano is now in the open, and when a pianist isn’t warbling, it the guitar-picker’s turn. There are more than a half-dozen champagnes by the glass, 36 white, red and sparkling wines, and 17 beers, including four imports on draft. A half-dozen tables here have touch-screen computers on which you can play games.
It might be the liveliest place on the ship, at least after dark, except for the Crow’s Nest Lounge, with its 2-for-1 happy hour, and theme music events – 1950s prom night, line-dancing night, karaoke, etc. A huge wall of TV screens alternates music videos and cable programming with live TV views of the broad dance floor. (And the Crow’s Nest is where the ship’s officers and entertainers hang out.)
Most ships’ pool deck features a casual-dress restaurant, usually with buffet lines for all three meals. Part of the SOE makeover has re-purposed a horizontal section of the Ryndam into a 62-seat dinner restaurant, Canaletto, featuring mostly familiar Italian cuisine. Waiters wear the traditional gondolier’s striped T-shirts; seating is by reservation or walk-up.
Again, all cabins and public areas also received updates – new carpeting and curtains, granite countertops and new flooring in the cabin bathrooms.
Some HAL standards are still in place: a string quartet charms the savage beast in various venues during the day, the Ocean Bar combo plays jazz and show tunes nightly, the small movie theater still has cooking demonstrations on its stage, the Explorations Lounge has its specialty-coffee bar, internet café, library and Eames chairs. The spa is still staffed by the ubiquitous Steiner operatives; some fitness classes are free, there are charges for others. There are classes in Windows technology most days.
But overall, the Signature of Excellence makeover has done more than rouged the cheeks of your granny. Now, you almost have to check her blog to see what’s shaking for her tonight.
For more information, go to www.HollandAmerica.com.
Uh-oh, there’s trouble in paradise.
Barely half an hour into the pool-deck barbecue dinner, while there is still lobster tail on the grill, lots of meat left on the roast pig and jumbo shrimp in the ice bowl, it has begun to rain on the passengers aboard the cruise ship Wind Spirit.
Not to worry. The waiters quickly appear to offer thick beach towels to those diners who feel threatened by the shower blowing across the harbor of St. Barthelemy, island escape of the super-rich. And for this evening, escape for the merely well-to-do aboard this four-masted, 148-passenger ship.
Rising above even the elements, we dine on. For our courage, we are soon rewarded with line-dancing by the waiters and bartenders — who knew there still existed a copy of Achy Breaky Heart? — followed by passengers stepping to oldies rock ‘n’ rock played by the ship’s orchestra, a two-man combo and its prerecorded sound tracks.
Life is good aboard the Wind Spirit.
Transiting the Panama Canal is a slow affair. Entering the six chambers of the locks, ships might move just 2 miles per hour, and motoring through the entire 50-mile passage can easily take eight hours.
Guided by a mule, lower left, a cruise ship moves through a lock chamber.
Along the way, your ship passes lushly forested hills and plains carpeted by palm trees. All of which belies the intriguing blend of tragedy, scheming and an unimaginable amount of human effort need to create the engineering masterpiece. It is hard to conceive that more than 27,600 men died in constructing the canal, dead from accidents, landslides, malaria and yellow fever.
First the French tried to build a canal, but despite two years of surveying, they foolishly plotted a sea-level path. That’s most likely because overseeing the project was the man who ha also shepherded the successful construction of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps.
He had no experience as an engineer or builder but has been a diplomat who gained the rights form Egypt to build that canal, which was at sea level — with no significant elevation to overcome, so it needed no locks to raise or lower ships.
But the route chosen in Panama was saturated by rainwater – never a problem in the Suez – which caused repeated landslides. Plus, medical science had no realistic ideas about the prevention or cure of malaria and yellow fever.
The French project did not stop after eight years, in 1889, because of all the deaths of more than 22,000 laborers but because the company ran out of money.
About a decade later, the Frenchman who was the company’s chief engineer hired an American lawyer, to influence the U.S. Congress in choosing a path on other Panama land owned by the company. After some outright lies by the lawyer, Congress did choose Panama instead of Nicaragua. When Colombia – which then controlled what is now Panama — rejected the U.S. treaty signed with that French engineer, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched warships that blocked Colombia from putting down a Panamanian rebellion.
Newly independent Panama quickly granted America the right to build and operate a canal. In May 1904, work began, with the chief engineer selecting a different route – one not at sea level.
The first transit came in August 1914. The same lock chambers used back then are still used, and the 1-millionth transit through them is expected this year. But by 2015, construction should be complete on a new set of locks, to allow much larger vessels to pass.
Colon, Panama — Shortly before 3 p.m. on a mid-January day, Eric Hendricks comes aboard the 100-passenger ship Pacific Explorer. He is one of 290 pilots who take control of ships entering the canal.
Passengers on the Pacific Explorer look down as a mule holds the tension steady on a cable.
With him are workers who fasten cables to posts at the bow and stern, on both sides of the ship. These cables run to special locomotives, called mules. While transiting ships propel themselves, the 55-ton mules provide enough tension to keep the vessels straight within the lock chambers.
Hendricks, a 22-year veteran, will be on the bridge the entire transit, talking alternately to the captain and, by walkie-talkie, to the mule drivers, who play out or tighten their cables and match Pacific Explorer’s speed of 1.8 knots (about 2 miles) per hour.
By 3:54, after a Japanese fishing vessel has come up behind the Pacific Explorer, the rear gates of the first chamber of the Gatun Locks’ three chambers begin to close. Matched by Canal Authority computers for maximum occupancy of the chambers’ space — 110’ wide by 1,000’ long — these ships will transit together each of the Canal’s six chambers.
Canal pilot Erick Hendricks works on the bridge as a mule glides alongside.
Onshore, operators press buttons to move the 85-ton doors that open or close a chamber, front and back. Now, 3-million gallons of water per minute rush in to the chamber.
At 4:05, with water pressure equal on either side of the doors to the front of the Pacific Explorer, they slowly swing open, fitting into the sides of the chamber.
The ship glides forward, and Hendricks swivels his head from side to side, checking the ship’s position vs. the walls. Occasionally he lifts the walkie-talkie and to utter instructions.
Once through the third and last chamber of Gatun Lock, the mules having played out or pulled in their cables as the ship sinks or rises, the cable hands who had come aboard remove them from the posts. Untethered, Pacific Explorer begins a 23.4-mille passage through manmade Gatun Lake, to the next lock.
A Japanese fishery ship enters a lock chamber behind the Pacific Explorer.
Hendricks now switches his attention to the screen of the laptop he brought aboard in a scuffed, yellow plastic case. The computer is programmed with a look-down view of the route through the canal.
At 9:20 p.m., the forward doors in the Miraflores Locks’ southernmost chamber swing open to the Pacific Ocean. Hendricks presses the button of his walkie-talkie: “Ones and twos, everybody cast off. Thank you.’’
Passengers on deck wave to the mule drivers, one of whom calls out, “Good voyage!’’
A boat will swing alongside shortly to pick up Hendricks. Tomorrow, he’ll get a call telling him when to report to the locks, to guide another ship back to Colon.
For more information: Go to www.pancanal.com, or send e-mail to email@example.com. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Path Between the Seas is a highly readable history of the canal.
Like marriage, your vacation is often a series of compromises. That is never more certain than when picking a cruise.
Barely a half-mile from a glacier, passengers aboard this small 'exploration' ship watch it nudge through an iceberg field.
Will it be a megaship, carrying thousands of passengers but offering a spa, swimming pools and multiple dining choices? Or will it be a cozy vessel taking fewer than 100 passengers, without workout facilities and with just one dining room – but a vessel that will nuzzle the glaciers in Alaska or put you in motorized rafts to reach beachfront rain forests?
Will it be a big-name line, with lavish musical revues, comedians and a string quartet? Or will it be the little-known brand that dispenses with entertainers in favor of PBS-style documentaries and power-point presentations by its naturalists?
Passengers line the rail to view Alaskan glaciers, but this ship is so large, it is miles from the nearest glacier.
Do you need a hair dryer and flatscreen TV in the cabin, or can you get by with a shower stall that contains your toilet?
Long gone are the days when cruising mainly appealed to the “newly wed and nearly dead.’’ While folks in those demographics still come onboard, the vast majority of cruise ships are aimed at luring the 90 percent of American adults who have never been on a cruise.
Passengers 'dress' for dinner and enjoy crystal and fine china in this restaurant aboard a 1,900 passenger ship.
Most fleets are designed to appeal to the middle class – with sparkly things such as rock-climbing walls, wave pools, shopping arcades, specialty restaurants ranging from Tex-Mex to sushi, and fitness areas whose dozens of machines face floor-to-ceiling windows on the ocean.
Yet other cruise lines aim for the deeper pockets of better-educated, better-traveled passengers. These ships may have planetariums, onboard acting troupes, top crystal and china in the dining room, and a visiting faculty of noted lecturers.
And then there are the small-ship lines that trade the geegaws and Broadway-style revues for basic comforts and destinations to the exotic — or at least the undeveloped. Typically a fraction the size of mass-market ships, these “soft-adventure’’ vessels appeal to those wanting first-hand experiences, not to frolic on “cruises’’ but rather to see what else is out there.
The 'entertainment' on the 72-passenger 'exploration' ship Spirit of Columbia occurs in this small lounge -- a venue for videos, PowerPoints and close-up viewing of wildlife and scenery.
The counterpart of these slightly
roughing-it excursion ships are those that also carry fewer passengers but emphasize luxury. Lavish staterooms replace tiny cabins that may not even offfer a chair. The bar in each stateroom is stocked with beverages the occupants have requested before boarding. There may be butler service, and the dining room menus promise mini-feasts.
As with most other things, you get what you pay for. The mass-market, 2,500+ passenger ships profit from volume purchasing. Per diem fares on these ships can be less than $80. Excursion ships, on the other hand, can easily cost five times that, and luxury vessels, much more.
So before you head for your first, or fifth, cruise, consider what else is out there, and what it costs.
To learn more, consult the web site of Cruise Lines International Association (www.cruising.org). This trade organization represents 25 lines with more than 97 percent of passenger capacity leaving North American ports.