Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shipboard life

AT SEA IN THE GULF OF ALASKA – Cruising is a singular experience for a traveler whose preferred mode of conveyance is flanged wheel on steel rail. When the Statendam, one of the Holland-America Line vessels, is at sea, there is a whole lot of nothing for the rail buff to do. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Lectures, origami demonstrations, yoga classes, cooking instruction, shopping-till-you-drop, extreme dining and other such crowd-pleasing shipboard activities have no appeal for the longtime introvert. Rather, I've found it much more congenial to sit in the Statendam's library and watch fellow passengers, speculating on their personalities and stations in life – just as I do in the lounge car of the California Zephyr or Empire Builder.

That must be Marv and Madge from Oklahoma, farmers who have pinched pennies for decades to take this two-week trip of a lifetime. Or Bertil and Hannelore, well-to-do Swedes checking items off their international bucket list. Mr. and Mrs. Teabagger, corpulent Arizonans who smoke endlessly, bitch endlessly about Mexicans, and support the ship's economy with endless hours in the casino.

There also are Evie and Edna, elderly sisters from Cincinnati, taking a rare vacation from their husbands and letting an unanticipated world blossom before them. Bill, a leathery Wyoming rancher, is inseparable from his Stetson, even at meals, but cleans up well in suit and tie for formal dinner nights. He may even have gone to college.

The glowering fellow who never seems to change out of his warm-up suit might be a stowaway, a killer on the lam hoping to drop out of sight ashore if he can get past the watchful eyes of security.

There is one splendid similarity between ship and train: Watching the people who ride them is good for the creative juices of the mystery novelist.

And oh yes, there's a lot else to see. Yesterday we cruised College Fjord, taking in the spectacular views of ice-strewn waters and distant glaciers, and today we will enter Glacier Bay National Park, hoping to see noisy calving of icebergs as well as marine life such as whales, orcas and seals.

I do have one bit of useful information to offer you today: If you take a cruise tour, aboard Holland-America or any other line, be sure to bring along printed documentation of everything you've paid for.

Several times there have been minor glitches in the proceedings, usually involving computers. I wasn't on the manifest for the Cruise Train from Anchorage to Seward, but a printout of my official schedule persuaded the conductor to let me aboard. The cruise line upgraded my stateroom from an obstructed to a full ocean view, but my shore excursion tickets went to the original room, not the new one, and disappeared. The excursion guy checked my bona fides and issued new tickets.

Tomorrow will bring a train ride – aboard the storied narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon from Skagway into British Columbia. With, of course, new opportunities for people-watching.

One more thing: I won't upload any photos until returning home next week. Using the Internet at sea is slow and expensive, and pictures just take up too much bandwidth.

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