Two Cruise Coda

“I’m not condemning cruise vacations.” Travel writer Rick Steves wrote in his book “Travel as a Political Act. “I’m simply saying that type of activity is not ‘travel’ it’s hedonism.  (And I don’t say that in a judgmental way either.  I’ve got no problem with hedonism, I’m a Lutheran.)”

That’s how I open my talk, “Traveler, Tourist, Cruiser, Clueless.” I give it to service clubs and church groups in Sitka.  The word “clueless” resonates with Sitkans because of a common experience that every Sitkan’s been asked “What’s the altitude here?”  We all have our own answers, some polite, some not so much.  The most common answer is “High Tide or Low?” 

Every year on my radio show I collect the most common tourist questions from the past season.  Last year the most common questions were, “Where can I find free wi-fi?” and “Where can I buy legal pot?” Another common question is “Can I spend American money here?”

I also ask for the funniest question.  “Are there female sperm whales?”, “What time do they turn on the Northern Lights?”, “Do you start carving the totem pole before it is finished growing or after?”, and “Are those islands attached to the bottom?”  Sometimes I think the questions are folks making a joke.  The sperm whale line is really funny.  “Can I spend American Money?”  You don’t know what country you’re in?  The “Clueless” line resonates.

We’ve taken several cruises on Holland America and I’ve not met many people who would ask those kinds of questions.  Perhaps there aren’t that many of those types of cruisers.  Perhaps it’s just that over the course of the summer the really silly ones stand out.

And that brings us back to Steves’ quote.  Are Cruisers travelers or just hedonists on a floating palace?  Steves writes that “travelers” go out of their way to engage with people, to get out of their comfort zones, to experience some element of uncertainty and inconvenience.  They do this to to reap the rewards of the unexpected discovery.  He contends cruisers do not.

G.K. Chesterton wrote The traveler sees what he sees.  The tourist sees what he has come to see.” And there’s some element of seeing what you have come to see in cruising, especially if you are on an organized tour.  It takes you to what you’ve come to see.  Paul Theroux writes “Tourists   don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going.” Sometimes cruisers don’t know where they’ve been.  By the time you’re done two cruises back to back, with only 5 sea days in 4 weeks, a cruise where we visited 6 ports on 6 consecutive days, it’s easy to lose track of where we’ve been. I find myself asking “Was that Arendal or Ålesund?”  If I didn’t keep this blog to cement my memories, I would never remember.  One of the lessons from these two cruises, at least for me, is not to book such a dense itinerary.  I will look for more sea days and more two-day port visits.  There’s another drawback to such a dense itinerary.  There were no guest lecturers because there are not enough sea days.  I missed them.  One other lesson, we left Dover in the afternoon.  The next morning, we were in Jersey.  Some of our cruise mates flew in from the States the day we left.  Without that sea day they were pretty jet lagged.  Suzi and I had the luxury of spending a week in London before the cruise.   Some cruise mates treated Jersey like a sea day and didn’t get off the ship.

On our first cruses we took lots of tours to see what we had come to see.  That was okay.  But as we get more cruise experience, we’re taking a different approach.  I read up on where we are going.  If there is something important that we couldn’t experience in the time in port unless we took the tour we take it.   Of 23 port days we took 3 tours. If there was something we really wanted to see, we took public transport or a hop on-hop off bus.  Sometimes, we never got to what we had come to see because we were diverted by something that else took our fancy.  I don’t regret missing those sights because they were replaced by an experience, an encounter with someone interesting, a musician who caught our fancy, a side street not in any guide book, an unexpected gallery or a pastry and coffee in a café that looked interesting.  Some days we just got off the boat and wandered with no intended destination.

There is another advantage to this approach.  While some of our cruise mates got up early and rushed breakfast to get to the tour muster point by 7:45 or to catch the first tender, we grabbed breakfast when we were ready, ate at our own pace, got off the ship and sauntered. 

I would never have done this as a younger man.  My kids said we never went on vacations, we went on field trips, with punch lists of sights to see.  Suzi, at one point on this cruise, turned to me and said “So this is what they mean by vacation.”  It is and I like it.

On reflection I disagree with Rick Steves.  Cruising is travel, or at least it can be.  You can plan it so you have time to explore, to find the unexpected and to spend time talking with local folks.  But beyond that, anytime you get on a ship it’s travel.  It’s travel when you see the lines cast off and feel the excitement of leaving the pier.  It’s travel when you approach a place at sea level, sailing up an estuary or a fjord or taking leisurely leave of the White Cliffs of Dover.  You get a sense of distance traveling at less than 20 miles an hour.  Compare that with climbing inside a metal tube in one airport and getting out at another with the same shops, with the same brands and the same of security lines. 

There’s lots to see at sea level, like dolphins playing in the bow wake of the ship or the final sunset of the cruise, the red glow silhouetting North Sea oil rigs.  Cruising is travel, and now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s a vacation as well.

Prinsendam goes out of Holland America Service on July 1.  I will have a post on Prinsendam on that date, but until then here are some pictures of a beautiful ship, low profile by today’s standards, nice lines, rides the seas well, and is a joy to be on.

By the numbers:

Norwegian Fjords Explorer:

Captain Jeroen Suchuchmann

Average Speed 12.9 knots

Miles Traveled 2826

Fuel Used 192,581 Gallons

Celtic Explorer:

Captain Marco Carsjens

Average Speed 14.3 Knots

Miles Traveled 2253

Fuel Used 187,613 Gallons

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