International buffets, extensive poolside fare and round-the-clock gourmet room service, cruise companies are making sure to pamper guests with food and beverage options, rivalling even those on shore. Tina Di Cicco has the details.
Cruising is for geriatrics and the mobility-challenged. Or for the heartbroken or wistful singles hoping to find true love in a captive market on the high seas. That’s the vacation gnome in my mind speaking. And that’s why when the idea of going on a long family cruise, complete with in-laws reared its ugly head, I instinctively veered away and prayed the idea wouldn’t come to life until I was 80 or so.
But an Alaska cruise was decided and I dutifully resigned my summer to trailing in the wake of my children, husband and his parents and sister. Well, I was in for a surprise. Those three weeks turned out to be the most enjoyable vacation in memory across our three generations.
Our ship, the 55,900-ton MS Statendam sailed out of its port of Vancouver on a sunny afternoon, gliding by a picture-perfect canvas of clear blue sky, green mountains and a white-boat dotted sea. We watched the scene transform from busy and vibrant to quiet and tranquil from our private verandah, sipping from glasses of a perfectly chilled Robert Mondavi that our travel agent sent for us to enjoy onboard.
As the half-moon ascended and the fiery crimson sky faded into dark blue, we headed to Statendam’s Lido restaurant, where an impressive buffet of Asian and Western fare ran for what seemed like half a kilometre. Nourished and blissfully satiated, our party of seven headed in different directions. Our boys sprinted off to the kids’ lounge, Club HAL, guided by a natural and highly evolved ability to sense the presence of Xboxes and computer games anywhere at any time. Mother-in-law and father-in-law strolled around and were stopped by what is reputed to be the biggest library at sea, the Explorations Café. Sister-in-law sashayed to an upper deck and joined wine connoisseurs gathered to sample the ship’s finest vintages. My husband and I savoured the rare peace and quiet and pored through the meticulously organised and graphically pleasing line up of activities in the comfort of our huge Verandah Suite.
Day one was not even finished and I was already hooked. I’m hardly alone. Cruise vacations have soared in popularity in recent years. It’s not just the luxury of the Titanic mixed with the adventure of the Love Boat that makes these trips such a hit. Think of a cruise ship not just as a floating five-star hotel, but also as a complete resort with something – often a bewildering variety of things – for everyone. Activities onboard the larger ships range from Broadway-class entertainment and live music to movie theatres, bowling, basketball and even ice-skating. Add to that the array of guided shore excursions from the simplistic to the sublime and the ability to mix and match, and you have a vacation that fits even the most finicky of personalities.
Yet even more than the range of facilities and activities, what makes it all work is the well-oiled organisation that literally takes care of all the arrangements. This allows everyone to have their own personalised vacation, heading off for the day to do what they choose and meet again with their group over a wonderful dinner to swap stories of their day’s adventures.
Our first port of call was Ketchikan, the Salmon Capital of the World, where our guide pointed to us a most reliable weather vane – the steeple at the (salmon!) pink city hall. She explained that if you can’t see the steeple, it is raining. And if you can, it means it will rain soon. Ketchikan is also known as the Rain Capital of the World and we were lucky to have enjoyed a cool, sunny day.
A stroll from where cruise ships dock is the famous Creek Street, the winding alley where, during its rough and tumble heyday, “the men and the fish came to spawn”. Now, it’s a unique over-the-water boardwalk setting for quaint shops and restaurants nestled among the “houses” where the action of yesteryear played itself out. A few minutes away is the jump-off point for the Misty Fjords, where a float plane ride will provide a front-row seat to a spectacular display of 50 million year-old granite, sculpted by glacier, jutting out proudly from the water, sometimes seemingly dropping down from the sky on a misty day.
Knackered from our daytrip on land, we returned to the ship by mid-afternoon where white-gloved crewmembers in crisp uniforms pampered us with Dutch high tea at the fine dining restaurant, Rotterdam Dining Room. What a wonderful way to relax before donning our best evening suits for an evening of extravaganza, including a black-tie event with the Captain of the ship!
As with most cruise ships, the food and beverage options on the Statendam are extensive, including two fancy dinners (yes, husband, father-in-law and sons wore tuxes and really looked quite fetching) to international buffets, poolside fare and round-the-clock gourmet room service. My eight-year-old’s eyes grew round in disbelief when he heard that he could really order anything – even cheeseburgers and ice cream at 3am. He, of course, put this tale to the test on our first night and was amazed when it all arrived, delivered by a cheerful crewmember, who acted as though this was all normal and that there was nothing he’d rather be doing than bringing food to an wide-eyed customer in Pokemon PJs. As for me, I was at peace knowing that an authentic Margarita could be had at the push of a button.
Still recovering from the previous night’s festivities, we headed into our second port Juneau. Accessible only by boat or plane, Juneau is the most isolated state capital in the US. It is also one of the busiest in terms of tourist visits, with thousands of people drawn each year to its dramatic Juneau Ice Fields. Our onboard concierge worked magic in getting us four seats on the fully booked Mendenhall Glacier Guided Walk and we climbed aboard our private helicopter for the 30-minute flight. What a remarkable experience approaching the vast, glowing, bluish white glacier from above. The chopper dips to land and you are slowly embraced by the ice all around you until you are lost in its vast whiteness.
We landed on the glacier at 8°C, the wind chill factor turning it notches lower to what felt like 4°C. We trundled to the icy ground, curling our toes inside our shoes for grip. Our guide took us on a journey back millions of years when the dynamics of nature painstakingly carved this masterpiece. We followed a trickle of water flowing from a crevice that led to a small stream of clear, icy water. The boys immediately dropped to their knees, cupped their Goratex-wrapped hands and scooped a good gulp of the tangy water melting from a million years of ice.
Standing and staring at the ice all around me, a new world of blue opened up. Glacial ice is more blue than it is white! Its crystal structure absorbs all colours of the visible light spectrum except blue, which it reflects back as radiant, glowing, pure and almost magical shade of blue.
Even if our vacation had to end right at that moment, I would have been completely satisfied. The glacier walk is almost a spiritual experience, coming face to face with this awesome work of nature. I was filled with a sense of inner peace and joy, a feeling that continued when we sailed on through Glacier Bay and throughout our trip.
Stretching 105km from north to south of southeast Alaska, Glacier Bay contains 16 massive glaciers, 12 of these reach shorelines and calve (shed broken pieces of ice) that produce icebergs. Supporting seven different ecosystems of plant and animal life, this is one of the world’s most important natural laboratories. Scientists and naturalists since the 1700s have come to this place and stayed. And I’ve understood why.
We sailed the whole day with nothing but the sky, glaciers, mountains, ice floes, humpback whales and sea gulls in sight. Every so often, a mountain goat would appear on a ledge or a bear on a berry-picking stroll would amble out of the greens. Even with the Statendam’s array of onboard activities, many of us simply sought out a place to sit quietly for hours. Savouring this awesome landscape, listening to its deafening silence, snapping out of the trance with the crashing boom of massive ice chunks dropping into the icy water, then sliding back into bliss again – how can a vacation be more relaxing?
Alas, all things must end. Far too soon for my taste, we were walking down the gangplank and away from the indulgent haven of always-on service and ice cream during the wee hours and back into the real world on land. So now, I long for the sea and take comfort in the fact that we are already planning our next cruise.
DO CRUISE FIRST, THEN CHOOSE
With more cruise products available these days, choosing the right one can be daunting. Following these guidelines may just spell the difference between that perfect holiday or horrendous nightmare at sea for you and your loved ones.
• Choose the right ship. Size does matter at sea. Cruise ship capacity ranges from 49 to 4,400 passengers. If you want cosy and intimate interaction with like-minded travellers, go for the smaller vessels. If you’re looking for activities, games, recreation and a fun-packed vacation, the mid-size and up ships have the facilities and hardware to provide all these. Keep in mind that the larger the ship, the more time it takes to get on and off.
• Pick the right itinerary. Which part of the world do you want to discover? How will you get there from where you live? Flight schedules and airports are important. Landing at 4am for a 4pm ship-boarding means getting a day room in a hotel. Arriving close to the ship’s boarding time, on the other hand, can mean missing the boat if the flight is delayed. When would you like to travel? Alaska, Scandinavia and Baltic cruises operate only between May to September; while Antarctic sailings are between December and February. Mediterranean and Asian cruises sail pretty much all year round.
• Select the right cabin. The size, location and features of your cabin can spell the difference between a fantastic cruise and a nightmare at sea. Single travellers do well in small cabins (some without windows) since they spend the time fully enjoying the ship’s facilities and use the room only for sleeping. Balcony rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows offering a great view, without you having to hang around the promenade or public areas. Suite rooms are pricier but considerably larger and include some very nice extras. The list includes a club lounge, unlimited laundry and a club concierge who can magically get you into spa appointments, over-booked shore excursions, specialty restaurants etc.
Whatever your choice, we recommend speaking to a cruise agent or a travel agent who specialises in cruises and has been on a cruise. That way you have access to insider’s info, cruise secrets, best deals and great ports. Let the experts do what they do best – make your cruise your best vacation ever.