THINKING OUT LOUD - It was a cruise, but not what you think

Like many people, I have a list of places I want to be sure to see some day. Alaska has been on that list from the day I made it.
Norwalk Reflector Staff
Jul 25, 2010

Like many people, I have a list of places I want to be sure to see some day.

Alaska has been on that list from the day I made it.

And this year I finally got to go.

It was, in fact, wonderful and indescribable. But little did I realize how difficult it would be for people to understand the experience I had there.

The first thing everyone says is: "Oh, did you do a cruise?"

That's where the confusion starts because the answer always begins with: "Yes, but ..."

The cruise that everyone is familiar with is the type I have taken and enjoyed several times in the past: You get on a huge ship owned by Carnival or Royal Caribbean or Holland America or Princess or Celebrity or somebody. It usually leaves from Florida or California and cruises the Caribbean or Mexican coastline or to Hawaii.

Been there. Done that. And they are great: lots of food and activities and affordable luxury. For years I have said that a cruise is the only vacation that is as good as the brochures say it will be.

And it is that type of cruise mega-ship, cushy rooms with balconies, morning, noon and midnight buffets, casinos, spas, the works it is that type of cruise that most of the world now takes to Alaska. They typically leave from Vancouver, British Columbia and meander in luxury through the Inside Passage to Alaska. And who can blame them?

But that's not how I wanted to go to the last great, wild place in America. I was afraid it might end up feeling like the Hawaii/Mexico/Caribbean cruise but with glaciers.

And I wanted to feel like I was in Alaska.

So what Char and I did was a little different. And because nobody that we tell about it seems to quite understand, I thought I would take the next several paragraphs to explain.

Let's start with the cruise line. As I said, most people end up on one of the big names: Carnival, Princess, etc. We booked with a little company called Cruise West.

The Cruise West itinerary looks a lot like that of the big companies, but everything is on a much smaller scale.

Take the ship itself. In Juneau, there is a tram that goes from the harbor to the top of an adjacent mountain. From the top of that mountain, you can see all the cruise ships at their moorings. The day we were up there, directly below us was one of the largest cruise ships in the world, the Carnival Spirit: 960 feet long, over 3,000 passengers and crew, 88,500 tons. The Carnival Web site calls it a floating resort. Two other floating resorts were anchored right beside it.

Down the wharf a ways, we could see with considerable squinting our Cruise West ship, Spirit of Alaska: 68 passengers, 143 feet long. In other words, the capacity of the Carnival Spirit piano bar was greater than the number of passengers on our entire ship.

I knew I was going to like it. And I did.

I mean, think about it. Every time one of those big cruise ships shows up in the little Alaska towns like Haines or Skagway or Whittier, the population of the ship each ship is greater than the entire population of the town.

I am positive that the people who traveled on those ships and booked those excursions had a great time, but I just wasn't up for that kind of mass experience this summer.

The shipboard experience was definitely different, too. One example: On the big boats, you dress up for dinner a couple of evenings. On our boat, I wore flannel shirts and jeans to every meal.

And when the big ship people go for shore excursions, there are buses lined up as far as you can see. On the other hand, for almost every shore excursion we did, Char and I were the only two people doing it.

Oops, now I've done it run out of space before I told you about the actual vacation. Let's just say that we saw bears and moose and glaciers, slept two nights in a lodge at the very end of the 90-mile road into Denali National Park, hiked on trails where there were never more than a handful of other people, and got to know most everyone on our cruise ship, including the crew.

So that's the long answer to "Did you do a cruise?"

Yes, but it was a different kind of cruise. And I really liked it.