Menu
Menu
Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 4)

Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 4)

Ever wonder what it would be like to work on cruise ships? Small cruise ships? For 15 years?

Elise & Tim Lentz have worked on ships big and small as cruise directors, shore excursion managers, tour directors and event managers for over 15 years. The married globetrotters are based in Florida when they’re not aboard ships, mostly small ones these days, running the small ship division for a US-based tour operator and now for their own new company Global Tour Management. Depending on specific assignment(s), they may be on the high seas for a few weeks to a month or more at a time. Their life has been anything but boring and each day offers a new adventure.  

Welcome to the fourth in a series of monthly installments from Elise, sharing their story.

 

Part 4: My fondest small-ship cruise memory

By Elise Lentz.

After 15 years working on small ships, people often say, “I bet you have some great stories.” When you take into consideration that a typical cruise is 7 days, we realistically have spent a significant amount of time with thousands of people. So the response is “yes,” we definitely have some stories to tell. This is normally when my eyeballs roll into the back of my head as I think about some of the real winners…

In the service industry, there is something referred to as the 20/80 rule. In any group, there will be 20% of the people that take up 80% of your time. Those 20% are the ones who you will never forget. Unfortunately, it is typically for all the wrong reasons.

However, there are a few stories that still make me smile and will stick with me forever. Here is one of them.

Tim and I were working as crew onboard Windstar Cruises’ MSY Wind Surf during a Christmas cruise out of Barbados. The Barbados itinerary is one of the most logistically complicated for the embarkation and disembarkation of passengers, because of the airlines’ flight schedules. Disembarking passengers would start to leave the ship as early at 3:00am.  That was not a typo, I did mean 3 in the morning. Embarking passengers would arrive throughout the day and continue to arrive after midnight.  For Tim and me, this schedule required us to work around the clock for almost two days.

A passenger sitting alone by the pool

The evening of embarkation, those passengers that arrived earlier were starting to make their way to dinner. Tim was walking on the outside decks and noticed one guest sitting alone by the swimming pool. He wandered over to make sure everything was fine and struck up a conversation. The guest mentioned that he traveled a lot with his business. He said he only took this cruise because his wife was excited about getting away with him and she insisted that he needed a vacation. As it turned out, the guest lived (part-time) in Florida, same as Tim and me, and they started to talk about some of the places they were both familiar with. When the guest mentioned some Florida blues bands he knew, Tim commented, “Sounds like you are in the music industry.” The guest replied: “Yes, I’m Brian Johnson.” Now Tim grew up listening to a lot of music and it didn’t take long before he put 2 and 2 together. Brian Johnson = lead singer for AC/DC.

While we do get a passenger manifest containing everyone’s name, Johnson is about as familiar a surname as Smith, so we didn’t have any “red flags” to clue us into the fact that we had a world-renowned rock and roll star sailing with us. Tim immediately notified the hotel manager that we had a major celebrity on board and we are all given strict orders to let Mr. Johnson have a peaceful vacation with his wife.

That worked fine for all of us, with the exception of the dining room manager.  He was a wonderful man from Croatia, who happened to be a huge fan of AC/DC.  The entire trip his face was frozen with a permanent smile and the familiar songs of AC/DC blasted in a steady stream from his office. He could hardly contain himself and at one point, in passing, I mentioned to him to “keep his pants on.” The dining room manager asked Tim, “Why is your wife telling me to keep my pants on?” It was at that time I realized that some of my “common” phrases and slang were not universally recognized to other nationalities. On the ship, the Indonesian and Pilipino crew would also have some slang sayings. For example, when a big cleaning needed to be done it was known as “soapy soapy.” If there was an abundance of something, they would say “plentong, like rice.” If something wasn’t fully understood, or seemed illogical, you would hear “why like that?” We were definitely a cultural mix and full of our own phraseology.

Ok so… “keep your pants on”

I’m getting to the good part of the story.

As I mentioned, this was a holiday cruise and for much of the crew, it was a difficult and emotional time. Many of us were thousands of miles away from family and friends and while we were spreading the “holiday cheer” to the passengers, our hearts were heavy. That’s when Santa Clause delivered us all a special message. Brian Johnson offered to give the crew a private concert on Christmas Eve. We worked with the ship’s house band to learn a few of AC/DC’s biggest hits. We did a major “soapy soapy” in the crew lounge and we even built a small dance floor.

Christmas Eve arrived and after a night of singing carols and drinking egg nog, the passengers went to their cabins with dreams of sugar plums and sandy beaches dancing in their heads. That’s when the crew came out to play. Our guest of honor was escorted into a place passengers never see — crew space. But that night we were proud of our little retreat, as we had transformed it from a smoke-filled, stale-beer-soaked, carpet-stained hang out into a classy looking night club lounge. We filled the room with stage lighting and a sound system we stripped (a.k.a. borrowed) from the passenger bars and lounges. The female crew excitedly ditched their crew uniforms in exchange for party dresses, heels and lipstick.

Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 4)

Brian Johnson of AC/DC and Elise shaking it all night long * Photo: Tim Lentz

Officer rank & order went over board

For the next hour, the crew onboard the MSY Wind Surf was joined together by the magic of music. Officer rank and order were set aside as we became one big family away from home and we had our gracious guest to thank for this special gift. While he could have easily spent his evening relaxing, he paid it forward by doing what he knew how to do best — perform.

In the early hours, we stealthily replaced the “borrowed” equipment to the passenger bars and lounges and grabbed a few hours of sleep before facing the passengers awaking to Christmas morning. They were singing carols and we were humming Back in Black.

While I have never traveled with a known celebrity again, there have been other passengers who have touched my life.

I’ll share a few.  Come back next month to find out who….

Click here to read Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 1)
Click here to read Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 2)
Click here to read Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

 

Subscribe to QuirkyCruise HERE to receive weekly updates!

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

quirky-cruise-a-ghost-on-the-delta-queen-two-men-posing-for-photo-in-front-of-delta-queen-ship

Ted’s brother Sandy wrote this poem that integrates words and phrases derived from the Mississippi River steamboat era following a Delta Queen river cruise they took together a little over a decade ago from Chattanooga to Memphis via the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

a Ghost on the Delta Queen

Delta Queen at Paducah, Kentucky. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

Steamboat Lingo — Hearing a Ghost on the Delta Queen

 

Captain Mary Greene cottons to the Delta Queen

like cargo cotton used to stick to hair.

Out of the main channel now, she bushwhacks

her way along phantom shores.  Dead for years,

she spooks around cabin deck aft.

Acknowledged my brother Ted, as a kindred spirit,

wrapping on windows as he walked by.

We were relieved she knock knocked

back by the paddlewheel.  Not

in our stateroom where she died.

 

A benign spirit, she saved this steamboat

from sinking.  Guided a gangway guard

to a broken water pipe.  But Mary’s

been known to blow her stack.

Steam cleaning her insides.  Like when the bar

was expanded—broke some glasses did she.

 

Never high falutin mind you.

Like this Delta Queen, her stack hinged.

Humble enough to cruise under whatever

bridged her path.  She’d say, “You’ve got to

bend a little to get somewhere.”

 

And determined, like crossing

Muscle Shoals, come hell or high

water.  As a river pilot, she knew

the hell of low water was hitting

rock bottom—then you’d be singing

the blues to an Alabama moon.

 

Approaching Shiloh, Tennessee,

a passenger’s voice croaks through

the morning mist, “That low-flying

blue heron looks like General Sherman

after he got shot.”  A stick in the mud

remark from a rebel keelboater

whose pole got stuck.

 

In the pilot house, I imagine Mark Twain

at the wheel.  Cap cocked to one side, toothpick

in his mouth doing a slow bob as he says,

“The day was a dead and empty thing,

when steamboats left Hannibal.”

I hear ole Mary chiming in over paddles

churning. “You ain’t just fiddling around.”

A boatman’s disdain for all but the real work

that keeps “steamboats a-comin.”

 

The bitter end—the uncleated end

of an anchor line that pays into the river.

May it be a long time a-comin

for the Delta Queen and its elder passengers

now gathering on the sun deck to hear

the captain play the calliope, a steam organ.

Mist from the organ, the paddlewheel,

and my eye mix a Mississippi River gumbo.

The kind that keeps Mary afloat.

 

Note: Italicized words and phrases originated with steamboats.

a Ghost on the Delta Queen

Ted & Sandy Scull

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

Ever wonder what it would be like to work on cruise ships? Small cruise ships? For 15 years?

Elise & Tim Lentz have worked on ships big and small as cruise directors, shore excursion managers, tour directors and event managers for over 15 years. The married globetrotters are based in Florida when they’re not aboard ships, mostly small ones these days, running the small ship division for a US based tour operator and now for their own new company Global Tour Management. Depending on specific assignment(s), they may be on the high seas for a few weeks to a month or more at a time. Their life has been anything but boring and each day offers a new adventure.  

Welcome to the third in a series of monthly installments from Elise, sharing their story.

PART 3: Working and sleeping aboard a small cruise ship

By Elise Lentz.

It takes a special relationship to work, 24 hours a day,  7 days a week, with your spouse.  Some may even venture to say it takes a “lobotomy.” In a previous post, I mentioned that Tim and I spent 14 months “full-timing” across the USA in a 24-foot RV. That adventure allowed us to test the waters of cohabiting in small quarters for an extended period of time. After surviving that journey, we asked ourselves if we were ready for the ultimate test of our marriage. We knew there would be a lot of challenges ahead of us. We would be entering a brand new career working in foreign countries we have never been to before and leaving the security of the family and friends we knew. The only thing that was a constant, in all of this, is we had each other.

Could we work side-by-side and live in small quarters, 24 /7 for seven months? And could we do it without killing each other?  It turns out, we did not kill each other (though we had our moments…).

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

Elise testing out the mattress in their Wind Spirit cabin. * Photo: Tim Lentz

Spending the last 15 years together, on the high seas, many people remark that we are living their “fantasy.” With that, I’m often asked, what is it like to live and work onboard a cruise ship. First off, it’s important to understand that there is a dramatic difference between working as crew and working as a tour leader — and we have done both.  As crew, you are hired by the cruise line and live and eat in crew quarters and your work schedule is 7 days a week for months on end.  As a tour leader, you are hired by a tour operator to manage their group onboard. You are classified as a passenger, so you sleep in a passenger cabin and dine in passenger restaurants and, in general, you get some down time during your assignment.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

Our cabin on the Wind Spirit. * Photo: Tim Lentz

With that in mind, “life on board” can best be described in terms of Clint Eastwood’s movie — The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. 

When we started working for Windstar Cruises, we were hired as crew and our positions were classified as officer status. I would equate ship-board life as similar to being in the military, where your rank defines your amenities.  Tim and I shared a cabin together and, thankfully, it had its own bathroom (The Good). Other crew members bunked together in smaller living quarters (sometimes 4 per cabin) and used a communal bathroom down the hall (The Bad).  The crew mess hall had a separate area for officers, which meant the officers mess offered less fish heads, rice and hot sauce and more curry dishes.  The one thing they both had in common was an abundance of cigarette smoking (The Ugly).

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

Our very own cabin bathroom on the Wind Spirit. * Photo: Tim Lentz

Crew areas are your “home away from home”

The size of the ship determined the amenities available, where some “larger” small ships offer a separate crew bar, gym and lounge.  But no matter the size of the ship, Karaoke can always be found (Which can be The Good, Bad and Ugly). OK – you get the drift….

I had no idea what working (on average) 16+ hours a day, 7 days a week for 7 months would entail. Being “on,” in front of the public, all day long, for months on end, takes a lot of energy, patience and self-control. Being only human, there are just some days you want to curl up under a blanket with a cup of coffee and a good book. I remember one such day about five months into my contract. We docked in a small Caribbean port and I was at the end of the gangway greeting passengers as they disembarked for the day.  A lady approached me and asked the following question: “How should I walk?” I politely replied to her: “Well, normally I walk right foot then left foot then right foot then left foot.” I will be the first to admit, it was not one of my finest moments, and she made sure to note this in her comment card by writing: “Hostess was a smart xxx.”

It was at that time I realized my own physical and mental limits. For me, working in such a high profile position, in the public eye for 7 months (without a day off), was not healthy. So while I loved what I did, I needed to find a better way to do it.

During our tenure on the ships, we would often meet tour leaders who were responsible for a group they brought onboard. It may have been with a corporate incentive group or an organized touring group. The tour leader, in essence, was a passenger working on board.  As crew, I couldn’t stop thinking about this. As I explained previously, they were assigned to passenger cabins and dined in the passenger dining rooms and had days off.  (The Good… The REALLY GOOD).

From Crew to Tour Leaders = Cabin Upgrade

We were finishing a four-month contract in the Aegean, when we were approached by a tour operator to join their organization as a husband/wife tour leader team aboard their small-ship cruising programs. After working as crew for five years, this was an offer that was hard to turn down (refer to The REALLY GOOD above). We would now be “working passengers” on board some of the finest small ships and leading groups on luxury tours around the world.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

The little crew office behind the Wind Spirit’s Reception Desk. * Photo: Tim Lentz

However, despite what some may think, just because you are on vacation, doesn’t mean those serving you are also on vacation. People will ask me — “So how do you get a gig like this?” I often reply, jokingly, that #1, you need a big bladder because you are the last to pee, and #2,  you need a small stomach because you are the last to eat (The Bad).  The reality is, to make sure your vacation runs smoothly and appears effortless, takes a lot of “behind the scenes” work for the tour leader.  But… I can now do that work in luxury passenger areas rather than crew areas (The Good) and I know that I don’t have to wait four-to-seven months before I get a day off (The Good… The REALLY GOOD).

Our time spent onboard ships over the past 15 years was not without its challenges, but it also offered us many memorable moments.  Want to hear a few???  I bet you do. OK. Next time….

 

To read past installments, click here:

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 2)

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 1)

If you like what you’re reading, don’t miss a post and subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com, it’s free!

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

 

Small Ship Photography Cruises

By Anne Kalosh.

Photography buffs or budding photographers can hone their skills in fascinating destinations with top experts on several small ship photography cruises that provide subjects ranging from polar bears to penguins to vineyards.

50 Years of Victory

Imagine the scenic bounty on a trip to the top of the world! Reaching the North Pole, 90°N, is something very few people will ever accomplish so this really merits recording. In 2019, Quark Expeditions is extending its Photography Series to a North Pole journey aboard the nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker 50 YEARS OF VICTORY.

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Instagram-worthy moment at the North Pole. Photo: Quark Expeditions

The June 23 to July 6 voyage features two renowned photographers who have worked for the BBC and National Geographic Traveler. Cindy Miller Hopkins and Sue Flood will run workshops on how to capture the perfect shot in Arctic conditions.

Travelers will have plenty to capture as the mighty 50 YEARS OF VICTORY crushes through thick ice, past polar bears, walruses and other wildlife. They’ll get opportunities to explore by helicopter and Zodiac and, upon reaching 90°N, can even ascend in a tethered hot air balloon.

Fares start at $29,995 per person. (The hot air balloon costs $495 extra.)

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Learn how to take the best polar bear shots on a Quark voyage to the North Pole. * Photo: Quark Expeditions

Silver Cloud

At the other end of the earth—Antarctica—Silversea Expeditions offers My Photo Academy aboard SILVER CLOUD. At private or group lessons, travelers can learn to master digital photography in workshops for both beginners and pros. Among the topics are an introduction to photography, social media and the use of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop software tools to edit images.

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Shooting icebergs from Silver Cloud. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

SILVER CLOUD’s Photo Studio, designed and implemented in collaboration with Galardi Media Network, a Swiss company, provides an incubator for creativity with the latest equipment for both Mac and PC users. This includes high-quality printers for use on a fee basis for travelers who want to create postcards or take home frame-ready pictures.

Guided by a professional photo manager, passengers can learn and practice their photo editing skills on such high-grade professional equipment as six HP Envy 27-inch, all-in-one desktop computers; six iMac 27-inch, all-in-one desktop computers; four Loupedeck photo-editing consoles for Adobe Lightroom, two DNP dye sublimation photo printers, two Epson inkjet plotters, custom workshop management software, three Samsung 55-inch screens with 4K picture quality and one Samsung 65-inch screen with 4K picture quality.

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Silver Cloud’s Photo Studio provides all the tools at individual workstation. * Photo: Silversea Expeditions

Additionally, budding photographers can schedule a 20-minute, one-on-one appointment with a photo-editing expert to receive guidance on matters ranging from gear recommendations to help with social media and posting on Facebook and Instagram.

SILVER CLOUD expedition voyages to Antarctica are offered from November through February.

 

Emerald Liberte

For entirely different subject matter, Emerald Waterways is helping travelers to beautiful Burgundy and Provence improve their smartphone photos. Travel and lifestyle photographer Jack Hollingsworth, author of The Joy of iPhotography, will lead workshops during the “Sensations of Southern France” cruise aboard EMERALD LIBERTE departing Aug. 4, 2018.

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Photographer Jack Hollingsworth will share tips aboard the Emerald Liberte. Photo: Emerald Waterways

The seven-night cruise between Lyon and Arles visits Chalon–Sur–Saone, the birthplace of photography and the center of Burgundy’s wine region; Macon, gateway to the Beaujolais vineyards; Tournon, with its 16th-century castle and Roman ruins; and Avignon, where the Papal Palace and Avignon Bridge are among the monuments protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Workshop participants can learn how to compose a better shot, which apps the pros use (and how to use them) and how make the most of the powerful cameras that live inside their smartphones. (Maybe even tips for focusing after drinking lots of wine?)

To reinforce these lessons, Hollingsworth will offer hands-on assistance during afternoon and evening sailings and on shore excursions to ensure passengers go home with photos that will be the envy of their friends and families.

Fares for the eight-night sailing start at $3,905 per person.

Small Ship Photography Cruises

Emerald Waterways passengers can learn to take better smartphone photos on a cruise to southern France. Photo: Emerald Waterways

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

Ever wonder what it would be like to work on cruise ships? Small cruise ships? For 15 years?

Elise & Tim Lentz have worked on ships big and small as cruise directors, shore excursion managers, tour directors and event managers for over 15 years. The married globetrotters are based in Florida when they’re not aboard ships, mostly small ones these days, running the small ship division for a US based Tour Operator and now for their own new company Global Tour Management. Depending on specific assignment(s), they may be on the high seas for a few weeks to a month or more at a time. Their life has been anything but boring and each day offers a new adventure.  

Welcome to the first in a series of monthly installments from Elise, sharing their story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Part 1: Elise & Tim Chuck Corporate Life to Hit the Road & the High Seas

By Elise Lentz.

How we wound up at sea is a voyage in and of itself…

We are high school sweethearts and credit our 30-year marriage to having similar goals and dreams in life. This means we got into this business because Tim and I had an early mid-life crisis together.

We were both working corporate jobs and never seemed to have enough quality time together, let alone have the time to take a true vacation. We had a nice house, cars and income — but something was missing. On a whim, I bought a book: Six Month Off: How To Plan, Negotiate & Take The Break You Need Without Burning Bridges Or Going Broke. Who knew that book would lead to us quitting our jobs, selling our house and cars, storing our “treasures,” and buying a 24-foot RV.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

It all started with a 14-month RV odyssey across the US. * Photo: Elise Lentz

Phase 1 of the Plan

We started the adventure by parking our new RV for a month, and then with two backpacks, our passports, Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door, and a Europe train timetable, off to Europe we went. Growing up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, this was a big deal for us. It was our first trip outside of the United States and once we got our passports stamped for the first time, all of the fear and trepidation of leaving our corporate jobs began to fade away. Not having an idea of what to expect made it even more exciting.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

A month backpacking through Europe was the precursor to a life at sea.

We spent one month backpacking through Europe, sleeping in hostels and pensions, and riding the rails. Of all the amazing places it was the kindness of strangers in a foreign land that was most memorable.

Phase 2 of the Plan

After our successful month taking a break exploring Europe, we were now ready to start “phase 2” — a 14-month RV journey across the USA with two mountain bikes strapped on the back. The trip surprised us with beautiful scenery and gracious people, and only a few breakdowns — the RV and once even our bed! (don’t ask).

Back from the RV tour, we realized that we loved being together and traveling, but we needed to figure out how we were going to survive at this long term. I found myself paging through the newspaper and saw an advertisement for a Windstar Trans-Atlantic cruise. Now you’re thinking “how is this going to pay the bills?” I thought the same thing, but we decided to approach this cruise as a two-week life planning session. Try to explain that as a business deduction to the accountant. We were up for two weeks at sea — with little to no TV or Internet. There would be a lot of time to reflect on what was important to us and what we wanted to do “when we grew up.”

Excited about this plan, we made the final payment on the cruise on September 10, 2001. Yep, the day before the horrific 9/11 event that rocked the world. The travel industry took a massive hit and we thought we would be getting a call that the cruise had been canceled. The ship still had to relocate across the Atlantic shortly after — with or without passengers — so the cruise line decided to bring along whomever still wanted to sail.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

Tim at the bow just before boarding. * Photo: Elise Lentz

On a small ship that holds 148 passengers, there were 21 onboard. Needless to say, two weeks at sea with only 21 people, we all got to know each other well. Searching for our next path in life, Tim and I focused on spending time with the cruise directors. On this ship, it was a “Host & Hostess” couple, which in essence is the cruise director and shore excursion manager.

Talking with them about life onboard, we disembarked the ship with a plan. We wanted to be them….

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

On that 2001 Windstar cruise, Elise & Tim had plenty of time to talk to the crew, including captain Martin Scott.

Jumping in with both feet

First, we needed a plan to gain relevant training and experience in tour management and hospitality. Traveling to Colorado, we attended the International Guide Academy and became certified as tour managers. Armed with a certification, we then spent time working for a ski resort as mountain guides and resort hosts. With a few additional assignments in tourism, we felt ready to pursue our “dream.”

We valued our relationship and vowed to each other that whatever assignment we pursued, we would do it together. Windstar Cruises was one company that needed a team who could work together and share a cabin. As a married couple, spending 14 months full-time in a 24-foot RV, we had already proven that we could survive in small spaces without killing each other.

In life, anything worth pursuing is worth the wait. Persistence paid off, the timing was right — and we were hired.

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes

Hired!

Was it everything we ever thought it would be?

Well let’s save that for another post….

See you soon. — Elise

To read more installments, click here:

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 2)

Elise & Tim Behind the Scenes at Sea (Part 3)

If you like what you’re reading, don’t miss a post and subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com, it’s free!

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Speaking of backpacking through Europe, if you’ve got plans to travel in Spain, here’s a helpful article about Safety in Spain from our friends at Alltherooms.com — Is Spain Safe?

American Cruise Lines New European Design

By Ted Scull.

According to a press release about the new 190-passenger AMERICAN SONG dated November 14, American Cruise Lines (ACL), in a continuing building spree, will look to European riverboat designs for a new fleet of low-slung, shallow-draft vessels that avoid any connections to the historic steamboats, heretofore the mainstays of the Mississippi and Pacific Northwest river cruisers. However, the new breed must still be built in America and manned by American crews, because it’s the law for domestic itineraries.

American Cruise Lines New European Design

Rendering of the American Song. * Rendering: ACL

While there is no reference to European design in the recent ACL press release, the plan certainly reflects a fervent desire to encourage Viking River Cruises, with by far the biggest fleet in Europe, to think twice about entering the North American market. Viking has talked about it for several years, and every once in a while, pipes up that it is coming to America. On verra bien (we shall see, as the French are wont to say).

Equally voracious, Viking* has its Longships design well honed, but the line would have to find an American yard to build the boats that come with high American construction costs, while American Cruise Lines has its own shipyard, Chesapeake Shipbuilding, in Salisbury, Maryland. Considerable retooling will have to take place to shift to the European model, far more than building a current coastal boat or sternwheeler with their similar interiors.  (*In a statement from Viking in early December 2017: “Viking has terminated current discussions to build vessels in a US shipyard for Mississippi River and U.S. coastal cruising.” Read more details here.)

ACL’s particulars will create a new fleet design that is being billed as faster, wider and quieter than the replica sternwheelers the line now operates. When they first came on the scene over the past decade, these steamboat-design vessels were made to be faster than the more authentic AMERICAN QUEEN (AQ) so more ambitious itineraries could be offered. They certainly had none of the fine replica interiors and furnishings that the AQ offered. Such a sister ship, with such attribution to detail, would be prohibitively expensive today.

American Cruise Lines knocks two firms by saying that “while other companies are repurposing old casino boats, American Cruise Lines contracts only for brand new ships.” While ACL did not contract for the QUEEN OF THE WEST, a 1994-built sternwheeler, the firm acquired it out of lay-up to start up a Columbia-Snake program. Perhaps this vessel will be removed from the fleet when the new vessels appear.

The first, AMERICAN SONG, is due to be completed in Fall 2018 for the Mississippi River and then move to the Pacific Northwest for the following year’s season.

The press release states: “Showcasing gorgeous interior design elements, from a four-story glass atrium to spectacular spacious lounges, American Song inspires.”

American Cruise Lines New European Design

Some interior renderings. * Credit: ACL

The three- and four-story atria can be found on some of the European river lines, and is an easier feature to imagine than the vague statement about the style of the interiors. However, ACL will continue its own thrust of offering larger cabins, with a high percentage having balconies, than the other US operators offer. It is less clear what “full-size bathrooms” means, but maybe it is just another way of saying larger than the norm.

To emphasize its multi-faceted operations, the press release read, “With two new vessels being introduced in 2018, the Line will operate the largest modern fleet of 10 small cruise ships, modern riverboats, and authentic paddle wheelers in the country.”

There is no disputing that. Its second coming in 2000, after a sale and bankruptcy in the 1980s, began with a pair of 49-passenger coastal boats. Look at the line now. One cannot be but impressed. They must be doing something right.

From my experience on a half-dozen ACL cruises, there is a healthy market of relatively well-heeled working and partly or fully-retired Americans who prefer (but not necessarily exclusively) to cruise in their own country, with their own kind, and dine on good American cooking while relishing some comforts.

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Erie Canal

By Ted Scull.

In this installment, it’s all about the Erie Canal — an integral part of America’s western expansion and of incalculable value to New York City.

Low bridge ahead on the Erie Canal

Low bridge ahead on the Erie Canal.

Residing in New York all my working life, I cannot get enough of the region’s history, development and major events. As an aside, I incorporate research into talks for general audiences and special interest groups. For purposes of QuirkyCruise.com, I first turn to big draws in my own back yard that you too might wish to experience some day, or maybe already have.

A few years ago, I took a cotton to a Blount Small Ship Adventures’ cruise that no other line can do, travel a section of the Erie Canal as part of a much longer, complex inland water route linking the Great Lakes and New York.

The Erie Canal, dug east-west across New York State between Albany and Buffalo, connected by water the growing Port of New York with much of the rest of the still developing U.S. Railroads and paved highways were still in the future.

At the time, Boston and Philadelphia handled more trade than New York, but these cities’ fathers could not solve getting over the mountain barriers to the Midwest that New York was about to accomplish with the Erie Canal’s completion in 1825. Almost immediately, New York’s fortunes took off to become the fastest growing port and city in the country.

Erie Canal

Approaching a lock on the Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

That slim little waterway was later enlarged and became what we can travel along today at a slow jogging pace. But you must choose a specifically-designed low-rise canal boat, in my case the GRANDE MARINER. Bingo, you can experience a low bridge on the Erie Canal made famous by “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” a song written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Clear the top deck and lower the pilot house to allow the boat to slide under bridges with inches to spare. Many were built by the new enemy, the railroads, to impede canal traffic. In fact, Blount’s present pair cannot travel the western end of the canal because of even lower clearances.

Approaching the enemy, a railroad bridge. * Photo: Ted Scull

Just west of Troy, a former industrial powerhouse a few miles north of Albany, the GRANDE MARINER drops down via a flight of canal locks to reach the lower level of the Hudson River — just 140 miles downriver to New York City. No natural waterway in the US combines so many scenic surprises, natural wonders, and stately homes that inspired the Hudson River School of painters.

For the next two days, be dazzled by the Catskill Mountains at sunset, the Hudson dramatically narrowing at Bear Mountain, Storm King’s massive headland thrusting itself into the river, the vertical drop of the Palisades, lighthouses dotting the shallow bits to warn of dangers, and a slew of historic houses with magnificent Hudson River views.

Stately mansion with a Hudson River view. * Photo: Ted Scull

Few know that you cannot drive along the Hudson to experience all these as parallel roads follow the river for just a few miles at a time. The water-level train route is second best though you clearly see only the western side, while by boat you see America’s Rhine the way it was meant to be seen.

The icing on the cake is sliding under the George Washington Bridge and sailing past Manhattan. Some Blount cruises end at the West Side’s historic Chelsea Piers, while others continue around The Battery and head up the East River to Long Island Sound and New England.

When I have stayed aboard, I get to pass my apartment just two blocks inland. Let me know when you are passing, and if I am in residence, I will come down and give you a wave from the riverside promenade.

How about a wave from above? * Photo: Ted Scull

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanzawa, Japan

By Ted Scull.

Without a doubt, Japan is one of the world’s most complex countries to fathom and perhaps, without knowing the language, equally hard to travel through independently. Many years ago I ventured there, liked what I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto, but had to leave after a week because of the high cost of almost everything. I pined to return, and for the last half-dozen years, I eyed an annual spring cruise that made a partial circumnavigation of the country’s four main islands. The ship was petite and the ports both familiar sounding — Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hakodate — and utterly unknown, at least to me — Hagi, Matsue, Kanazawa, Miyajima, Uwajima, Okayama and Sado Island.

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanzawa, Japan

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan

Of all the stops, these three were my favorites: Nagasaki, Matsue and Kanazawa.

While Hiroshima is a handsome, planned city built on a street grid, Nagasaki ranges around a lovely harbor hemmed in by tree-lined slopes. And as with Hiroshima, Nagasaki’s Atomic Bomb Museum has similar exhibits, further deepening the effect that these two horrific events had on all of us. Because of poor visibility, the second bomb landed north of the heart of the city and steep hills prevented more widespread damage. One-third of the population was killed and an equal number were injured by the blast, heat rays and radiation.

The city’s second major attraction is Glover Garden, a collection of 19th-century western-style buildings. Set in a hillside park, it reveals the influence Nagasaki’s foreign community had in establishing beer brewing, coal mining, railroads, and shipbuilding (Mitsubishi). The current shipyards were in full view in the harbor below.

Glover Garden Nagasaki, Foreign Settlement

Glover Garden in Nagasaki, Foreign Settlement

We had time to explore on our own and clutching 100 yen coins, I rode the city’s trams, walked the waterfront park and visited a covered shopping arcade. With the help of picture menus, several of us had a tasty and attractive lacquer tray lunch of noodle soup with shrimp, octopus, rice and dumplings, plus sweet little extras for only $7.

Up the coast at Matsue, we visited the private Adachi Art Museum and Gardens, instantly becoming my favorite stop. Inside, the art collection included beautiful scroll paintings and screens depicting birds, flowers, and trees in different seasons. The museum’s rectangular windows framed sections of the enchanting garden outside planted with moss, bonsai pine trees, sculpted bushes, flowers and ferns all set amidst swaths of white pebbles, rocks, tiny shrines, streams, waterfalls, arched bridges and stone walkways. The distant hills, referred to as borrowed scenery, formed a backdrop of tall pines, maples and other deciduous trees that are awash with color in the autumn. Sitting down to take it all in, it was hard to leave.

Adachi Art Museum & Garden, Matsue

Adachi Art Museum & Gardens, Matsue

The winding drive back to the ship skirted lakes, flooded rice paddies and seed beds. On all our drives, I saw no aggressive driving, no honking of horns or any impatience behind the wheel. Calmness and polite behavior seemed to permeate our host country, though I know from experience, such is not the case during the big city commuter rush hours. The trains tend to be more packed than the New York City subway, and just to get on, one has to sally forth! But most of our Japanese journey was not in the big cities.

At Kanazawa, we strolled through a beautiful garden that overlooked the city, visited the central market where traveling Japanese have seafood sent home and enjoyed a wonderful Japanese buffet overlooking the Shinto gate entrance to a strikingly modern railway station. In the afternoon, we experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony with all the elaborate steps and responses, a most serene and memorable occasion.

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa, Japan

Kenrokuen Gardens, Kanazawa, Japan

The serenity and beauty of Japan outside the major cities, and the civility shown to visitors made a huge impression on me.

While the ship I took has been sold to another line, the following small ship lines make similar cruises. Spring is a splendid time to go.

Small ship lines that offer cruises to Japan include Abercrombie & Kent, Silver ExpeditionsTauck and Zegrahm Expeditions.

Stay tuned for more of Ted’s Best Small Ship Cruise Experiences, in no particular order, in the weeks and months to come!

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

By Ted Scull.

Having traveled a lot over a long lifetime, things do happen when on the proverbial sea road, some quite positive and others just the opposite. Maybe I could have avoided some bad experiences by taking more care or being less of a risk taker. Not being timid by nature and enjoying testing myself, possessing a rabid curiosity can lead one into danger as well as blissful wonder.

With decades of cruise travel behind me, and more ahead, I want to share some of my wackiest and worst port experiences in no particular order, and once I have gotten over these remembrances, I will balance the scales with the most uplifting tales. None of the bad ones, by the way, involved the cruise line’s shore excursions.

Doctor of Understatement

During an off-season cruise up the Norwegian Coast, the ship stopped at a small port for a short visit, and the setting with the pretty town, mountain backdrop, and docked ship would likely be a terrific photograph.

I disembarked wearing a pair of loafers and did not see the black ice at the end of the gangway. Down I went landing on my shoulder and thud went my camera. Helpful people came to the rescue, and it was obvious from how my shoulder felt that I should go to the hospital.

A friend accompanied me, and I was soon seen by a young Australian doctor, in the Far North of Norway, who said he liked the climate. He came from tropical Queensland. Go figure! Following an x-ray and inspection, he said no bones were fractured, so he would release me to be on my way. Bill US$22.

Well it was painful, so the ship’s surgery helped out with painkillers. The cruise lasted another two days and when I reached Bergen, the air traffic controllers had gone on strike and my flights with a connection at Oslo back to Newark were cancelled.

My friend on the ship said that she would take my suitcase back to New York so all I had to carry was a small tote. After a night in a hotel, I went back to the airport and found that I would now be rerouted via Copenhagen. The airline personal were most helpful rearranging everything.

However, my wife had been a bit frantic as the airline would not say what flight I would be on until she convinced a supervisor that I would need help after arriving home. She met me at the airport near midnight, and home sweet home we went.

The next day I went to my doctor, and he took one look at the x-ray and said that I had a torn rotator cuff. Okay, a simple accident that could have happened anywhere. And it’s a simple travel truth that you may not get the best medical care on the road; beggars can’t be choosers.

Creepy Man with a Message

During an around-Japan cruise, the ship stopped at Miyajima, a Japanese island and major Buddhist center just a short distance from Hiroshima. We had a guide, and she explained the route we would take so if anyone wanted to linger, they would know how to catch up.

Soon, I did just that. As I was reading an explanation attached to a temple, a tall young man came up to me and inches from my face asked if I was an American. When I said “Yes.” He replied, “I thought so” and walked away. A few minutes later he returned and came straight up to my face again, and this time said, “Thank you for the atomic bomb.”

Now a bit freaked out and away from the group I decided it was time to rejoin them. I had not gotten far when I saw him shadowing me and I before I knew it, he was back, blocking my way. This time he said a little louder, “Thank you for the bomb, it helps tourism.”

Now I began thinking that he is not quite right in the head and increased my pace and caught up with the group. I pulled the guide aside for a second and told her what had happened. She went over to a guard, said something and came back apologized and went on with the tour.

I saw the man again twice just ahead of me, but he did not come close again.

A bit frightening at the time.

Now this next one certainly started out a tad scary too.

A Little Red in the Face

I had taken a Yangtze River cruise and was now traveling with a small group by train to Nanjing. The air-conditioning was not working, and it was July and beastly hot. I left the compartment and went down the corridor to the W.C. to wash my dripping face. As one might expect the towels were red.

We were just about to arrive at the station so I gathered my things, and as I stepped off the train, some of the group were staring at me as were a lot of Chinese, and I mean scores. I was somewhat used to the latter but not the former.

The guide came rushing up, and asked if I was okay. I said yes, just hot, and she took me by the hand to a first-aid station. The medic looked at me then took a white towel to wipe my sweaty face. The towel turned red — red from the brand-new red towel on the train that had not yet been washed.

Diagnosis: acute case of embarrassment.

These next two can really be one tale as the reason for the inclusion is the same.

Storm Warning

Ok this nightmare didn’t happen ashore, but given what happened aboard a ship, I almost didn’t make it to the next port! We were passing through a large tropical depression. The sea was streaked white as the wave tops were blown away. Passengers had been asked to stay off the open decks, but this writer is a foul weather buff so I went out to see how bad it was.

The winds were buffeting me then suddenly coming from the opposite direction. I held onto the railing as I walked aft and then down to the next deck. I wanted to cross the open deck to the stern. As I got part way the ship suddenly went out from under me, and I could no longer stand. Knowing the deck would be springing up again, I simply collapsed in a heap and stayed there until the ship was no longer rising and falling so rapidly, then stood and rushed to the forward railings and retreated back the way I had come.

There lying on the deck next to the short stairs I had used to get outside was a large ventilator that had been torn from its mount on the deck above and landed on the deck below. Inside the ship, a good friend said, “I watched you go outside then almost immediately, the ventilator crashed onto the deck missing you by a few feet.” The wind was howling so loudly I had not heard it land, taking a small chunk out of the teak deck.

Two lessons l learned within minutes of each other. When the captain says don’t go out on deck — bloody well believe him as there may be a good reason, or in my case, two!

Scull’s Nearly Pierced Skull

Skua on the attack

On an Antarctic/Falklands cruise with my brother, we went ashore at a landing on the Antarctic Peninsula. The landscape was free of snow and ice, and the beach with littered with seals and penguins. We had up to about two hours ashore, and there seemed to be no restrictions where we could go so after a period of time we went off on our own down the stone-strewed beach. My brother was busy taking videos and me stills a short distance away.

All of a sudden, I saw a large bird coming towards me maybe six feet above ground. He kept coming at me and when he got close I collapsed on the ground. I felt him or her pass over me and stood up again. The bird circled and came at me again. I grabbed a piece of driftwood and as it got near I thrust it upwards and ducked and the bird smacked the board. Before it could circle again I took off, and my brother who had watched the second attack, looked quickly around and found that I had been all too close to the bird’s nest.

Quite shaken, I returned to the ship and asked to see the expedition leader. I told him the story, and he said I was very lucky as the bird was a skua and it was on an attack, and had I not ducked or protected myself with that piece of driftwood, he might have broken open my skull with his beak.

I told the expedition leader that I wouldn’t share this occurrence with any of the passengers. He thanked me for that and said basically that kind of thing can happen if you stray too far into unfamiliar territory.

I vowed to never be such an oblivious dodo bird again.

Rambling Tote Job

Now this one is quite common up to a point. I was on a ship that had stopped in places like Colombo, Djibouti, and Port Said, and then we cruised westward through the Mediterranean. I had been very careful going ashore and deciding what I would take with me. Now back in familiar European territory, I relaxed.

The ship called at Barcelona for the day, and I went ashore with a couple I knew, who had been very savvy along the way as they had lived in developing countries in Southeast Asia.

I had a tote bag over my shoulder as we walked along the Ramblas, a popular boulevard. Then suddenly I thought to look in my bag. Gone were my passport case with my passport, ship’s boarding pass, my wallet with credits cards, driver’s license, and some cash. As a first experience of this kind, I was devastated, and had stupidly relaxed my guard in what was known, by lots of people, as a pick pocketers’ paradise.

I spent my day first pushing the emergency button at the American Consulate which was officially closed on a Saturday afternoon. A consul answered and said I was the 10th American who had come with the same problem, and that Easter Week was high season for thieves. She gave me the address of a nearby photographer and then issued a temporary passport. Citibank said they could not issue a card on the spot, but one would be available when I reached London after disembarking at Southampton. The rest was replaced when I got home.

I now carry only what I need ashore in a zippered pouch that is strapped to my belt and stuffed into my pocket, and inside my trousers if I am in a dicey neighborhood. This arrangement will lead into the last incident.

Dangerous Dagger Encounter

On a trip ashore with a friend at the port of Coquimbo, northern Chile, we decided to climb to a monument overlooking the town. Part way up we passed two men sitting on a low stone wall and kept going. Maybe 15 seconds later my friend shouted “Watch out” as the two men jumped me and sent me to the ground. I fought with one of them, hoping my camera would not get smashed in the struggle. Then my friend shouted, “He’s got a dagger, let the camera go.” I briefly saw the long blade and as I lay there, he used it to cut open my trousers as he saw the strap holding my wallet.

They then ran off. I stood up and could see people watching us. We were in a neighborhood, and the locals had watched it all happen. One man came up and said in Spanish that this pair was well known as drug addicts and petty thieves, and added, we are afraid of them, that is why no one came to your rescue. Someone had called the police, later at the station house, they took down the information, signed a form so I could collect insurance and basically said, they are probably across the border now (Bolivia), and I will not see my stuff again.

Back at the ship, I was the more scraped up of the two, and we received first aid at the infirmary. The ship had not given any warning about possible dangers, one that they had not called at before, and I guess no local authority had issued any.

The port agent was the most helpful person and allowed me to call my wife and give her the credit card details. I shared a camera to the end of the voyage, and my insurance company paid for a new one with nothing more than a phone call followed by a check in the mail.

All is well that ends well. Well ….

Silver Lining

One upside: an easy out on jury duty. I have been dismissed from several panels when the lawyer asks, “Has anyone been the victim of a violent crime?” I guess one sometimes pays dearly for a perk.

Part 2 Coming Soon: Uplifting Port Experiences, Ted Looks Back on a Lifetime of Cruising

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author.  All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

12 Irresistible Reasons to Visit the New England Islands by Small Ship

New England Islands

By Ted Scull.

Having spent many summers on Nantucket Island, one summer on the island of Martha’s Vineyard plus at least a dozen visits, and explored Block Island on foot and by bicycle five or six times, I would never turn down an invitation to go “aboard” anyone of them again. Most people may not know that Newport is on Aquidneck Island. I spent three years of my schooling there and back then a ferry connected Jamestown with Newport, so I was most certainly aware of its island status.

Spending summers 30 miles out to sea was a most exciting proposition. Once we were on island, we stayed put, and off island — i.e. the rest of the world — vanished from my thoughts.

As a child, I delighted in the knowledge that any direction I headed there was a beach, with serious ocean waves to battle or more gentle Nantucket Sound lapping at the shore.

Nantucket

The Town of Nantucket, comprised of 18th- and 19th-century American architecture, is stunningly beautiful because the whaling industry created much wealth. I began to appreciate the design and craftsmanship of the town when I got older, including Main Street’s cobble stones, though definitely not recommended for cycling.

Two of three Starbuck's red brick houses on Main Street, Nantucket.

Two of three Starbuck’s red brick houses on Main Street, Nantucket Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

A Nantucket cliffside beach facing the sound.

A Nantucket cliffside beach facing the sound. * Photo: Ted Scull

Martha’s Vineyard

After whaling died out, the island slipped into a long lull, so it never caught the Victorian-era fever that followed, while Martha’s Vineyard, established as a resort, most certainly did. Oaks Bluff, an early African-American summer colony, shows off a sweeping row of Victorians facing a green that fronts on the sound.

Just inland, a Methodist Camp Association established a community of miniature gaily-decorated gingerbread houses, most with just two rooms on each of two floors. Head out to the cliffs at Gay Head or ferry over to Chappaquiddick Island while stopping at delightful Edgartown en route.

An arc of Victorians at Oaks Bluff, Martha's Vineyard

An arc of Victorians at Oaks Bluff, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

Both islands operate convenient and inexpensive summertime bus networks that allow visitors to reach most places of interest with ease, and half-fares are granted for those 65 and over. The fleet helps keep down the number of cars that arrive by ferry from the mainland.

Methodist Camp Association houses on Martha's Vineyard

Methodist Camp Association houses on Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: Ted Scull

Related: Exploring New England on a Blount Ship

Newport … Aquidnick Island

Newport on Aquidnick Island is well known for its opulent mansions that were and are referred to as “summer cottages.” You might visit one or two, but also consider the Cliff Walk that meanders in front of a dozen, so you too can appreciate their ocean views. It was my favorite outing when I attended school there.

Newport’s Cliff Walk runs for several miles past “summer cottages” facing the sea. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the same time, don’t overlook Newport’s older lanes of late 18th- and early 19th-century houses just in from Thames Street, the touristy waterfront shopping street. And scattered throughout the town are Truro synagogue (1793), the oldest in America; St. Mary’s, the Roman Catholic Church where the Kennedys were married in 1953; and lovely Trinity Church (Episcopal) built in 1725-26. All are within easy walking distance of each other.

Block Island

Block Island may be the least known of the lot and that has helped keep gentrification in check. The island has strict building codes, hence no extravagant Hampton-style mega-mansions and mercifully little car traffic as the island is compact enough to walk to the beach from the landing, or bike out to the bird sanctuaries and majestic Southeast Lighthouse.

Sited on a cliff it warned ships at sea to stay away from the treacherous shallow waters. Old Harbor maintains its Victorian character of wooden hotels, inns and private houses.

The mid-19th century Spring House on Block Island. * Photo: Ted Scull

Related: New England Cruising with American Cruise Lines (ACL)

New Bedford

New Bedford, Massachusetts rivaled Nantucket for whaling supremacy and that legacy left a rich heritage of handsome houses finished in many heritage styles, with no two alike. They are located just a few blocks in from the harbor where a large commercial fleet is based for lucrative deep-sea scalloping.

While not on an island, most small ship cruises call here, and visitors give high marks to the centrally sited whaling museum.

One of New Bedford’s stately victorians. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the early days of summer stays on Nantucket, we embarked in New Bedford by steamer for the island, a four-and-a-half-hour run that stimulated my initial interests in boats and ships that lasts to this day.

New Bedford's deep-sea fishing fleet

New Bedford’s deep-sea fishing fleet. * Photo: Ted Scull

Both American Cruise Lines and Blount Small Ship Adventures offer one-week cruises.

STAY UPDATED: Don’t miss great articles, reviews, news & tips about small-ship cruising, subscribe to QuirkyCruise.com for monthly updates! 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author.  All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

Star Clipper in the Andaman Sea off of Thailand. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

By Ted Scull.

Seated in the forward-facing lounge aboard the Queen Mary 2 bound from Britain to Brooklyn, I begin recalling favorite moments at sea. The ocean is typically North Atlantic gray, intermittently streaked with white caps. The fog of early morning has lifted and the booming fog horn, erupting every two minutes, is silenced for now.

Looling out to sea in Mid-Atlantic. * Photo: Ted Scull

Captain Christopher Wells informs us that we are taking a more southerly course because this spring more ice than usual has been breaking off Greenland’s ice cap, and that which sank the Titanic is to be avoided at all costs. We are presently just 40 miles north of the ship’s grave.

It makes me think about deliberately navigating the National Geographic Explorer through the icy waters of Svalbard looking for polar bears. But then it was not at high speed during the dark of night or before the aid of radar and ice pilots.

A tiny speck of a polar bear is sighted about a mile away, so the ship gingerly breaks the ice to get a closer look and perhaps interest the bear to come our way. He or she does just that, and while the passengers gathered at the bow remain silent soon the bear is sniffing the air just below the bow.

A curious polar bear comes across the ice to have a look. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing amongst a sea of ice bergs in Antarctica aboard the Hanseatic was even more of a thrill. There was time to take in the amazing shapes, jagged and smooth, towering and linear, exhibiting many shades of blues and greens. Any sense of danger never even came to mind.

Hapag Lloyd’s Hanseatic amidst the ice in Antarctica. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Serenity is another effect of being on a ship at sea, and in a swift change of course, it also can happen on a river and one as seemingly mundane as the Ohio — with apologies to the fortunate folks who live along its banks.

When I suggested a cruise aboard the American Queen, my wife’s reaction was — we have done that. I persevered and soon we were on a train to Pittsburgh to join the steamboat at the junction where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio.

Two evenings later while we were enjoying a barbecue dinner three decks above the thrashing red paddlewheel, the full moon appeared from behind one of the West Virginia hills. Soon its light reflected in the river’s waters directly ahead as if leading the way, though the riverbanks were quite sufficient to keep us sailing on course. This serene scene was repeated the next two nights, if later in the evening.

Moon over the Ohio from the steamboat American Queen. * Photo: Ted Scull

A dramatic two-day ship passage leads from the Lower 48 States in the Pacific Northwest to the 49th state. If reasonably well versed in local history, these waters provided the hope to be the road to riches following a gold strike in the Yukon Territory.

Sailing aboard the SS Legacy, a replica turn-of-the-19th-century steamboat, provided the perfect conveyance to recall the era. In the month of May, the narrow waterway was not yet choked with massive cruise ships crowding out the natural scene of fringing mountains, their winter snow cap providing raging torrents of water cascading down the steep cliff faces just a hundred feet from the railing. Changing course and entering one narrow inlet, the captain edged ever closer to a plunging chute of water until the spray peppered the bow close to where we were standing.

Edging up to a waterfall en route to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

An entirely different sense of place occurred aboard the Royal Clipper, the world’s largest sailing ship, during a passage approaching the Pillars of Hercules, as the Ancient Greeks referred to today’s designation, Strait of Gibraltar. The mighty five master, bound for the West Indies, was leaving the confines of the Roman Lake, a Roman Empire designation, sailing between the towering rock face of Gibraltar to starboard and the African continent to port to then enter the vast Western Ocean and once, the unknown beyond. Many believed daring fate and staying the course would end in certain death as the ship would simply fall off the edge of an earth believed to be flat.

The majesty of a sailing ship. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

In almost completely opposite circumstances, following a crossing of the notoriously tempestuous Tasman Strait between New Zealand and Australia, the Oceanic Discoverer rode the heaving swells between the North and South Heads into Sydney Harbor. It was not until fully protected by the South Head that we were proceeding over truly calm waters toward the gleaming white opera house to tie up at Circular Quay. The buzz of the city quickly erased recent memories of holding on for dear life during the 48-hour passage.

Approaching the Sydney Opera House. * Photo: Ted Scull

Additional thoughts of being at sea in memorable settings keep flowing through the Queen Mary 2’s forward-facing window — sailing through the Maldive Islands at sunset, tasting sand in my mouth during a strong wind storm in the Gulf of Suez, and edging close to two islands that rose from the sea along the south coast of Iceland.

Sunset in the Indian Ocean passing through the Maldive Islands. * Photo: Ted Scull

It’s still two more sea days to New York, and now over sparkling seas my eyes follow a flock of storm petrels swooping in wide circles off the bow hundreds of miles from shore. The sea is endlessly fascinating and ever changing.

 

 

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author.  All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

By Ted Scull.

Alaska: Routes of the Alaska Marine Highway – Southeast (Inside Passage & Panhandle), Southcentral (based at Whittier) & Southwest (Kodiak Id. to Aleutian chain).

Alaska: the Last Frontier, Seward’s Folly and the 49th state was once upon a time such an alluring prospect to conquer for anyone who loved geography and off-the-charts travel. Airplanes do their best to eliminate geography and deathly dull drives on Interstate Highways are a close second. So when there are more interesting ways to get some place far far away, I like to nab the opportunities.

My best friend in high school loved geography too so we put our minds together to determine where best to go with our graduation money and a car at our disposal. We started with the furthest possible place to drive to from Philadelphia and came up with Alaska.

Ted putting his toe into water from the melting Portage Glacier. * Photo: T. Wistar Brown

With the car packed with food and camping gear, including jungle hammocks, courtesy of my friend’s father who had been in the New Guinea jungle during WWII. We headed north to Canada, across the country to Alberta, then arrived at Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway at Dawson Creek. While hundreds of miles thus far were over gravel roads, leading to one smashed windscreen, only the first 49 miles of the famed 1,523-mile route ahead were paved. The highway was hurriedly constructed during the Second World War to provide road access to Alaska for military equipment to protect the territory from a possible Japanese invasion. It officially begins in northern British Columbia near the border with the adjoining province of Alberta, almost 800 miles from the U.S. Montana border. The highway passes through the Yukon Territory and its capital, Whitehorse, the largest town (just over 23,000 people) en route and crosses into Alaska, where at a town called Tok Junction, motorists have the option to drive northwest to Fairbanks or southwest to Anchorage. Today, the road is entirely paved and its condition widely varies.

Alaska Highway Mile Zero, Dawson Creek, British Columbia. * Photo: Ted Scull

We traveled as far north as Fairbanks and as far west as Mt. McKinley (now Denali). To reach the Alaska Panhandle, we had one choice only as the Alaska Marine Highway ferry fleet did not yet exist. A small ferry (for people and cars) called the Chilkat operated from Haines near the top of the Inside Passage to Juneau, the only state capital without road access to the outside world — still the case to this day.

And we returned triumphant to the Lower 48 much the same way, arriving home after driving 15,219.5 miles!

1956 Ford station wagon takes to the high road. * Photo: Ted Scull

The second trip to Alaska 10 years later involved a combination of trains across Canada, a ferry to Vancouver Island, a train north to an overnight ferry connection to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and then the Alaska Marine Highway to Skagway. Traveling on the cheap without advance reservations, I spent the nights sleeping on a deck chair in the ferry’s heated solarium, and the days standing at the railing and watching the passing scene of majestic mountains, thick forests, and deep fjords. On the ferry, I met a couple of people to join for continuing travel.

Alaska Marine Highway, camping in the heated solarium. * Photo: Ted Scull

At Skagway, we took the Yukon and White Pass train (not a cruise ship excursion then) all the way to Whitehorse in the Yukon for a stopover, then returned south by bus along the Alaska Highway and finally to Prince George, before hopping trains to Vancouver, Seattle and back across the US of A.

I was so intrigued by the snappy-looking blue and white Alaska Marine Highway ships that I vowed to take the full route the next time. By now I was a travel writer and always looking for something different to interest an editor. I bet no one had written about taking the ferry in winter, and, why would they?

After spending Christmas with my brother and his family, I boarded a train for Seattle and booked a week’s round-trip voyage up the Inside Passage to all the usual Panhandle ports with a turnaround at Skagway. This time I had a cabin and all to myself. The sheer luxury of it all!

I am pretty sure I was the only tourist aboard the Matanuska (less than 300 cabin passengers) as everyone I met were either Alaskans returning home after the holidays in the Lower 48, truck drivers making deliveries or young folks looking for a job up the Inside Passage. Once we reached Ketchikan, Alaskans over 65 rode for free, so a number piled on and they were great resources for stories about Alaska as a territory back in the old days.

Matanuska at Ketchikan in winter. * Photo: Ted Scull

Colorful dawns came about 10am and dusk followed some five hours later. There was snow but not a lot of it at water level, that is, until an announcement came for the motorists leaving at Haines, the highway that I had used two decades before, was closed with drifting snow. Until it reopened there was no way to drive to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The passengers disembarked in their vehicles and stayed in motels or their camper vans until the highway and the border with Canada reopened.

Wintery dawn at 9:30am approaching Juneau. * Photo: Ted Scull

At the turnaround port of Skagway, the snow-covered main street was almost empty and the shops, hotels and attractions all closed. What a contrast to a summer day during the height of the cruise season. On the trip south, the boat was lightly loaded, and it snowed hard enough that when returning to Seattle the streets were impassable, and I had to hoof it, happily not that far, to the railway station.

That adventure made the Sunday travel sections of 13 newspapers. The good ‘ole days.

The fourth Alaskan trip was aboard a large Princess cruise ship as by now the cruise industry was well developed. I liked the ship and the passing scenery, but found the ports of call so crowded with roaming tourists, and on this big ship, we were so high above the water that everything nearby still seemed far away. I hated the land extension as the hotels were isolated with no suitable safe walks and land travel involved a bus amidst lots of others doing the same thing, converging on the same sights and lunch stops.

Finally, on the fifth venture, I came to my senses and took the opportunity to try a small ship! And a quirky one at that, the Spirit of ’98, a ship that resembled a handsome old-fashioned steamer operating for Cruise West, a firm that had been in the Alaska tour business well before the modern tourist onslaught. I asked my brother to join me for a one-week voyage from Seattle north to the Alaskan Panhandle ending in Juneau.

Spirit of ’98 at Skagway. * Photo: Ted Scull

Being with less than 100 others, rather than 20 times that, not only were we not sharing the outer decks with a milling mass of humanity, but one felt like a tiny speck amongst the majestic scenery. We sailed close enough to a waterfall to have those standing at the bow get wet and near enough to lounging sea lions to not even need a telephoto lens. On the night of a full moon, the little ship stopped among a raft of ducks and with the engines off, it was utterly silent except for sounds of nature. Magic!

Adrift on a full moon night in Icy Strait, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

My brother, who had gone on a canoeing trip in these waters a few years earlier, remarked that he saw more wildlife on this small ship trip than he had roughing it camping and paddling. The captain and naturalist staff knew where to go.

Two brothers, Glacier Bay, Alasaka. * Photo: fellow passenger

Then a decade later we went again on the same ship, now the S.S. Legacy of Un-Cruise Adventures, and had much the same wonderful experience, feeling a part of the scene, especially when we sat off the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay watching the ice break off with nary another ship in sight. Then moving to Johns Hopkins Inlet, we nosed up to a glacier of the same name, and this one was still growing! Again, there was no one else about; we were alone in this wonderful world of nature, bergy bits, sea lions, and clear blue skies.

S.S. Legacy, Un-Cruise Adventures at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull

In the lounge, the National Parks Service guide spoke to us as one small group, and at the bow, she did the same with the passengers gathered around or listening from one and two levels up.

Let off at the Sitka National Historical Park we walked amongst the tall totems set in a peaceful forest and strolled along the fishing piers of Petersburg where fisher folk shared their life’s work going after the catch, in one of the best places to make a living from the sea.

Would I go a seventh time? Yes, perhaps on a small ship to Southcentral Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula and maybe the Aleutian Islands. Small cruise ships and the Alaska Marine Highway (newly added to our ship lines) head that way too.

For information about the small ship cruise lines specializing in Alaska, go to American Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions, Alaska Dream Cruises, UnCruise Adventures and the Alaska Marine Highway.

White Pass & Yukon Route, historic railway based in Skagway, Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.