Sunday, June 27, 2010


Observations of a formerly virgin cruise-line passenger:

“What the hell is that?” I said to my dinner companion as we sneaked into my stateroom late in the evening. On the bed sat a frog made out of a towel. I had never heard of towel sculpture, also called towelgami, but it seems that it's been a big thing in the cruise industry for many years. As part of the evening bed turndown, stateroom attendants all over the ship fold washcloths and hand towels into all sorts of amusing critters. We had a turkey, a lobster, an elephant, a rabbit and I can't remember what else.

Maybe the purpose is to demonstrate the exalted level of service to which the cruise line is devoted, or maybe it's just an elaborate Filipino joke.

I can't speak for other cruise lines, but the thin and fit Holland-America passenger seems to prefer the formal dining rooms to the cafeteria-style eatery, called the “Lido” aboard HAL ships. The dining rooms (at no added cost) feature white napery, attentive service and sensibly sized portions of excellent cuisine, while the Lido offers ass-to-elbow jostling and unlimited self-shoveling of much less tasty fare for the wide of body and prone to coronary.

The dining rooms offer open seating, but the au courant passenger makes reservations to minimize waiting for a table. With reservations I was always seated immediately, either alone or with others according to my preference.

The waiters will always suggest a bottle of wine, but those who prefer single glasses are politely accommodated. The prices are reasonable, too – my party had Alice White chardonnay and shiraz from Australia, a good deal better than bargain plonk, for $6 a glass plus a 15 per cent service charge. Everything else in Alaska and aboard cruise ships is expensive, but not wine.

My table companion, a champion long-distance eavesdropper, overheard quite a few fellow diners complain that “Holland America isn't what it once was.” Whether they were talking about HAL in general or the Statendam in particular I don't know, but this ship is 17 years old, quite mature for a cruise liner, and perhaps small mechanical glitches occur with more frequency. For three days my room was way too cold, and a nice lady from the hotel staff took its temperature with a fever thermometer several times a day until a technician arrived, screwed and unscrewed several hatches, and put things right. By way of polite apology the staff sent a platter of chocolates, which I didn't need but appreciated anyway.

Computers being what they are, mistakes get made and tickets go missing, but upon being shown a printed itinerary brought from home, the shore excursion agent quickly reissued the ducats. At least for me, HAL always fixed its errors.

I for one am not terribly sociable, so the shipboard events and classes held no attraction. But those who need to be entertained all the time will find plenty to accommodate them: travel classes, ranger lectures, culinary instruction (even for children), computers with “Techspert Hana,” tai chi, fitness classes, shopping previews, tennis, volleyball, bridge, trivia games, AA meetings, movies, musical shows, dancing – and, yes, towel sculpture.

At sea the Internet is hugely expensive – 50 to 75 cents a minute, depending on the plan you buy. Part of the problem is that the marine satellite Internet is so slow, and the meter ticks while you impatiently wait for pages to load. I learned quickly to read only important-seeming e-mail and compose my answers offline, pasting them online. Several times the ship lost the satellite signal in mid-post, wasting expensive minutes. But reading the New York Times web site is free.

Speaking of the Times, each day an eight-page digest of that newspaper is printed and distributed at breakfast in the restaurants and to the rooms. You may not know what day of the week it is (although the elevator floor mats will always tell you) but you will not be unaware of what is happening in the rest of the world. On a cruise to get away from it all that is not necessarily a good thing.

The cruise lines, it seems, make their money not in the stateroom sales but in the ancillaries. We wondered why the Statendam's shopping "director" kept pushing the jewelry stores onshore (“Diamond necklaces by the yard!”) – what's so special about Alaska gems? Not until we were in a Native American museum at Ketchikan did we find out: "The cruise lines own the jewelry stores,” said a guide. Oh.

Would I do it again? Sure, but in a different way. If I were returning to Alaska, I'd skip the cruise liners and go from town to town by state Alaska ferry, making my own independent bookings. No regrets, though, about taking this inaugural cruise tour; for my first visit to Alaska, it was better to use the expert hands of Holland America to book the entire trip. It clearly knows what it's doing.

Those with suspicious minds might wonder what I was doing with a dinner companion in the stateroom. None of your business.

But she indeed is the familiar Lady Friend with whom I live; it just seemed wise not to let the world know our house was empty while we took a cruise. Even the most trigger-fingered burglar alarms can't prevent everything.

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