Alaskan cruising: fun for all

Aunt Virginia always said she’d never consent to a sea cruise.

Even that summer when she boarded the Celebrity Cruise ship Infinity, for the seven-day trip up the B.C. coast to Alaska and back, she maintained she had never agreed to it. She simply hesitated for a moment when her family suggested the trip to celebrate her 59th wedding anniversary.

“Including the day we were packing to go on that Alaska cruise,” Virginia recalled, “I don’t remember ever saying ‘yes’ to the idea.”

Virginia had valid reasons for refusing to cruise. She’d never been to sea. She feared seasickness and the crowds of people. She was wary of the potential expense. And she expected no cruise would ever satisfy the varied interests of the family with her.

The challenge: fun for all
Nevertheless, eight family members assembled in the Vancouver harbour on July 20 last year for the week-long Infinity Inside Passage cruise. In addition to her 86-year-old husband, her 72-year-old brother and his wife, there were Virginia’s 53-year-old daughter and son-in-law, as well as her 49-year-old nie and me, her 54-year-old nephew. A variety of ages — and a variety of tastes. The question facing them all was, Could an Alaskan cruise satisfy them all?

From the very first day at sea, each member of Virginia’s family went off to explore different features of the ship.

Up early for his morning constitutional, brother George hit the jogging track for a brisk walk on the outdoor Sunrise Deck. Often, the drizzle of the west coast morning fog forced him to move down one deck to continue his walk along the indoor Resort Deck. On that same deck, several of the women in the party considered the ship’s AquaSpa facilities, which included treatments such as facials, manicures, pedicures, seaweed skin wrap, spa baths, saunas, and aromatherapy massage. And after the casino opened each day at 6 p.m., Virginia’s husband, Angelo, usually checked  the roulette tables.

Soon after leaving Vancouver on its seven-day cruise, Infinity steamed through the 1,600 kilometres of B.C.’s coastal waters known as the Inside Passage. Along the way there were stops at Juneau, the Alaskan capital; at Skagway, the port from which 19th-century prospectors began their overland trip to the Yukon gold fields; at Ketchikan, an Alaskan centre of Tlingit native culture; and, ultimately, a waterfront visit to the tip of Alaska’s largest icefield, the Hubbard Glacier.

Book ahead, or go with the flow?
The cruise line recommended that passengers book their excursions — museum tours, nature walks and mountain hikes, helicopter and float plane sightseeing flights, jet boat and sport fishing trips, kayak and bicycle excursions, bus and train passage — in advance via the website. But partly because Virginia’s family members didn’t want to pre-determine their on-shore itinerary and because they recognized each member’s interests might vary on shore, they made no bookings aboard the ship.

“Instead,” Diane said, “we would get up in the morning, go ashore,  and then decide what we wanted to do.”

The strategy paid off. In Juneau, instead of booking prescribed bus tours, at $40 to $75 (US) each, the group quickly bussed to the visitor centre, checked out the available literature and, on an impromptu basis, met two Tlingit guides. For about $10 (US) each, Cory Mann, a 30-year-old native, took the group across the harbour for a personally guided tour and talk about the Juneau landscape from the Tlingit perspective. Later, native Ben Jackson bussed the group to the Mendenhall Glacier. Along the way, he stopped suddenly when he spotted a run of salmon in the river and movement in the woods, which turned out to be a young black bear dashing along the riverbank.

Next page: Glacial beauty

For Kate Barris, Virginia’s niece, the trip delivered on the promise of access to wildlife. While cruising, the ship encountered two killer whales frolicking with smaller tour boats and fishing vessels along the B.C. coast. Then, on shore in an atypically sunny meadow in Ketchikan, Kate came across a wildlife handler exercising two adult bald eagles. Jerry Thompson, bird curator at the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Centre, was desensitizing Dot, a five-year-old female bald eagle, to the presence of humans.

“I do rehab with up to 30 eagles at a time,” Thompson said. “They come to us after run-ins with airplanes, cars, gunshots and power lines. They’d normally live maybe 35 years in the wild. In captivity, they could last up to 50 years.”

Glacial beauty
For Virginia’s brother George, a retired civil engineer from New Jersey, the highlight of the cruise occurred on the fifth day out. The morning broke with dense fog pressing in around Infinity as the ship made its way northward above the 60th parallel, to the Hubbard Glacier, the largest coastal icefield in Alaska.

By 9 o’clock, George had bundled himself up with layers of clothing and made his way to the Resort Deck to stake out a spot at the railing with his video camera at the ready. He and the growing crowd of spectators heard the glacier before they saw it. They heard the sound of thunder. Each clap meant the glacier had released (“calved”) another huge chunk of ice that crashed into the sea.

Finally, after an hour of nearly blind sailing, the ship moved into a huge pocket where the mist had lifted. The glacier, ten kilometres across, towered 33 stories from the surface of the fjord. With the sky still overcast, the ice displayed more shades of blue than a rainbow. Then, the captain piloted Infinity within a few ship-lengths of the face of the glacier. For the first time since the lifeboat drill, passengers had crowded to one area of the ship — all upper decks at the bow of the ship. Not for long.

Just as the guide commented “we’ve never been this close before,” the crew began employing Infinity’s two self-contained, underwater propelling devices, called pods, to rotate the ship on the spot. Round and round the captain slowly spun the massive cruise ship a dozen times, so that any shutterbug could shoot at will from any location aboard the ship.

The entertainment every evening impressed Virginia’s son-in-law, Jerry. He never missed the nightly shows in the 900-seat Celebrity Theatre. With its proscenium stage, full orchestra pit, computerized lighting and sound system,  the theatre had all the bells and whistles any theatre-savvy audience could ask for.

The curtain on the Alaska cruise apparently came down too quickly for Virginia Nopulos’s family. It nevertheless left all eight with indelible memories. And Aunt Virginia admitted she probably wouldn’t hesitate the next time. She’d agree to a family cruise again in a propeller’s turn.