I think it was Thursday when my son, Kendyl, showed me on his iPhone that it was 40 degrees in Fairbanks, Alaska, and only zero degrees in Sandwich.
That’s what started me thinking about my first visit to Alaska as a travel agent, smiling and giggling when I think of the small ship my husband, Ron, and I took from Juneau to Seattle. Don’t remember the year, maybe the 1990s. We’d already been on classy cruises with men wearing suits and ties and women donning long dresses for luxurious dinners. Those were the days when men couldn’t even go into the dining rooms for breakfast or lunch with collarless shirts.
We loved to cruise, partly because neither of us ever got seasick and I’d learned to pack sparingly so we could get ready in a no time if a special “deal” was offered for travel agents. It was the best way to learn about the ships, itinerary, entertainment and meals, helping us match clients to cruise lines.
I’d already sold small ship Alaska cruises to clients who’d walked into the agency after they’d made their selection from brochures. When a special rate came through for the small ship line’s final Alaska cruise of the season, returning to Seattle, my husband and I decided to take a chance. We had always cruised on large ships with over a thousand passengers into the Caribbean or Bermuda with warm destinations, so we knew this would be different.
The small ship cruise line’s passenger rates were higher than most other large ships, and brochures pointed out that persons would not have to dress up. The brochure even talked about stopping when the ship was underway to allow passengers to see eagles, whales or other sights the crew would point out.
We flew into the Juneau airport, ready for our motor coach ride to the ship. Our first surprise was having a school bus for our transportation to the port. The next surprise was being told that the ship wasn’t quite ready for its new passengers, so we’d be dropped off at the Juneau Museum, where we were to encouraged to study the town’s history. The driver said our luggage would placed in our assigned cabins. We were to wait an hour and walk just a couple blocks down the sidewalk to our ship that was in port.
We followed instructions, waited and then started strolling to the port.
While we were walking, Ron asked me, “Where’s our ship? I don’t see the ship!”
I pointed and said, “That’s it.”
He replied, loudly, “IT LOOKS LIKE THE AFRICAN QUEEN! WHAT DID YOU GET ME INTO THIS TIME!”
I’d never been on a ship as small as this one. It seemed as though our single beds on each side of the cabin were narrower than twin-size. The miniature bathroom included a tiny shower with low water pressure that always caused Ron to say he was going in for a “trickle,” not a shower.
After we unpacked, Ron looked everywhere for the key to our cabin. He left to talk to the captain of the ship. When he returned, he said the captain asked him if we had something very valuable; if so, the captain would keep it in his cabin. There was no way to lock the cabin doors when passengers were out of their cabins. We could, thankfully, use one of those old-fashioned locks that slide across to the door’s frame when in the room.
This may sound like we were in for a disaster, but it was one of the most delightful experiences of our lives. We laughed for years about our experiences, recalling what we’d seen, the people we’d met and the food we’d eaten.
The grinning crew members were all U.S. college students. They were the cooks, waiters, dishwashers, deck hands, cleaners and even the entertainment in the evening.
The captain, who helped tie up at the docks when we stopped at different ports, would make announcements if there were whales or other wildlife sighted. He’d make sure everyone had seen enough, before they’d pull away. In fact, passengers could put their names on lists to be awakened during the night for special sightings, if they wished.
It was comfortable and casual, with often unscheduled happenings on board that ship. One couple, who absolutely loved one kind of beverage, depleted the ship’s small bar’s supply. It wasn’t long before a small boat pulled alongside with a few bottles delivered from a small town along our ship’s route.
Our evening meals were a little more “special.” We had three choices for dinner each day, and each of us had to turn in our requests by noon so they’d know what to prepare. All 53 passengers ate in one big room in the lower level, down a flight of narrow stairs. We sat randomly at round tables for eight.
Nearly everyone was middle-aged, except one newlywed, young couple who was very quiet. Dinner could be exciting, sometimes, with some folks getting more “loose” that late in the day. One older couple started throwing dinner rolls at the waiters when they weren’t looking. For some reason, the waiters thought it was the young couple, and they retaliated by throwing dinner rolls at the newlyweds from all directions. The newlyweds and everyone in the room broke out in thundering laughter, and from then on the young couple laughed and talked to everyone.
On the way down the coast to Seattle, everyone was told by the captain that they had to be in bed no later than 10 p.m. that night because we’d be going through the Japanese current and it wouldn’t be safe to walk around. He was right. The boat really rocked back and forth. Thankfully, for us, it was head to toe, so we didn’t fall out of our bunks.
Our last dinner on board was fresh salmon, grilled and served on deck. The college crew kept giggling and poking each other, so we knew something was up. They’d made hundreds of fresh cookies for the dinner but made lots more for a special prank they’d planned. The final surprise was for the captain. They’d filled his bed with fresh cookies, covering them up to mask their efforts.
We were so happy we’d gone on the small ship cruise, thrilled we’d tried something different. It wasn’t anything like The African Queen, and no one on board even resembled or behaved like Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart.
• Pat Wallis is a reporter for the Sandwich Record.