Archive for June, 2008

Back in fall 2004, when we were trying to decide which cruise line we wanted to go on for our Very First Cruise, we quickly decided that we didn’t want a mass market, and then narrowed down the small ship/luxury lines to Regent (then Radisson) and Crystal. Ultimately we picked Regent because of the open seating and because it sounded more relaxed.

In December of 2006 we had the opportunity to sail on Crystal, and were very curious to see how it would compare to Regent. In particular, we had read many times that Crystal was superior to Regent in food and service, and we wanted to see if we thought so, too.

We did agree about the food – the food on Regent is good but the food on Crystal is incredible. It was some of the best food either of us had ever eaten, on sea or on land. But we found the service on Regent to be far superior. In fact, it was so clearly better that we couldn’t understand at first how so many people could think that it wasn’t (because it’s pretty consistent in the online things we’ve come across – “Crystal has the best service” seems to be the consensus).

On Crystal, the staff are encouraged to learn the passengers’ names, and to greet them by name throughout the cruise, and we decided that this was where the “Crystal has the edge” came from. Most of the passengers seemed delighted by this, and talked in the elevators about how great it was, etc. However, we found it less than great, for two reasons. First, it became tiring after a while – I’d be walking across the pool deck and someone would holler “Hi Mary!” I’d whirl around to see who was talking, finally spot the staff member speaking to me, and smile and wave – over and over and over. At a certain point, I just wanted to be left in peace. (Lis: to me it reminded me of shopping at Safeway, where everyone has to say hi to you and they insist on attempting to say your last name at checkout. I hate it, and once even wrote a letter to them about it.) Second, because the staff was so focused on memorizing names, they would overlook things that we considered to be real service, like noting preferences and anticipating needs. Once on our Crystal cruise I stood at an event holding an empty coffee cup for about 45 minutes, while several staff members came by and said “Hi Mary.” On Regent, no one would have said “Hi Mary,” but I wouldn’t have been holding that coffee cup, either.

As we came in to breakfast in the buffet the other morning, and the waiter remembered that Lis likes hard boiled eggs, boiled for ten minutes (we suspect she might be famous throughout the ship now – but they’ve got the eggs down), she commented to me “I’d rather they remember what I like than what my name is.” I agree (besides, on Regent my name is “Madame,” which I very much enjoy).

Another issue where Regent is better, and I think it comes under the heading of service, is in how it treats the room stewards. Yesterday, Lis was chatting with our steward (who is somewhat below the Regent standard in anticipating needs, but makes up for it in personal delightfulness). We always ask about their hours and breaks, because we like to patronize cruise ships that treat their people better (not that any cruise line treats their people particularly well – I would die if I had to work as hard as cruise workers work). Our steward said she works about 10 hours a day – which is pretty good, comparatively. On Crystal, they make the room stewards handle the room service, too, so their hours vary by how many room service orders they have to deal with. One morning, most everyone on our floor had room service breakfast, so the room stewards worked all day with no breaks. This affected us because, one, our room wasn’t made up until 2-3pm as a result, and two, we never ordered room service after that because it made us feel too guilty.

One odd thing on this Regent ship – We have had numerous hand towels with holes in them, which I find surprising. I think it’s because there isn’t enough room to hang all the towels separately so people end up taking the hand towels and hanging them on the knobs meant for bathrobes and poking holes in them.

So, all in all, we’d have to say that while we enjoyed Crystal very much, and have very fond memories of the food, Regent remains our favorite line.

Links to Sitka photos and videos from the cruise

6-2-08

We were still tired when we got up this morning – I think our exertions in Juneau, coupled with our insistence on always taking the stairs, combined to be a bit more exercise than we’re used to. Lis decided to spend a relaxing morning on the ship and skip Sitka, especially since the weather was cloudy and showers were predicted. Though she was torn – I think what finally sealed her decision is that we were anchored, not docked, so would have to tender in to town. She said “I’m just not in the mood.”

I gave some thought to staying on board as well, but I had wanted to see the Russian church and the National Historical Park, and so I loaded on all my tourist gear (camera, binoculars, bag) and made for the tender. I also added MP3 player and headphones, so I was in full electronic regalia. The tender line was not long, nor was the wait for the tender, and the tender itself was not crowded, so it was a pleasant and pretty quick jaunt to town. Sitka was a pleasant enough little town – I walked around a bit, snapped a picture of St. Michael’s church, and then headed out to the Park. The park is set on the site of the 1804 Battle between the Tlingit and the Russians – the battle was a turning point in which the Tlingit, though they put up a good fight, were pushed out by the Russians. The Park is wooded with several hiking trails – I chose the trail that went to the site of the battle, and also the site of the Tlingit fort that the Russians were targeting in the battle. Along the way there were several totem poles, and there were the cries of ravens and even an occasional eagle, plus the path was right along the water line – it was very pretty. A few times I sat at the water’s edge and just listened to the sounds of the surf and the forest. The threatened showers never materialized, and it was fairly warm, so I had a nice hike.

Back on the ship we went and had lunch, then back to the room for a very lovely afternoon nap. Round about 3:30pm we headed to the Observation Lounge on Deck 12 – there was “Scenic Cruising” listed on the schedule. Unfortunately, everyone else had decided on “Scenic Cruising,” too, so it was pretty crowded. So we went down to the Horizon Lounge (aft, Deck 6) and saw the sights from there. The weather closed in, became rainy and stormy, and because we were headed into open waters in the Gulf of Alaska, the ship finally started to get some movement – a pretty good roll. Prior to this, because the Inside Passage is so protected, it felt like we were on rivers or lakes, not the ocean – completely smooth.

At 4:15 the Trivia started – this was the first time we’d been able to make it, and it was great fun. A group near us, which included a woman we’ve been chatting with off and on throughout the cruise, invited us to join their team, and we ended up tying another team for first place. At 4:45 the Bingo started, and we were tempted to play, but this was the night of our Master Suite cocktail party invitation, so we thought we’d better go get ready.

At 6pm we presented ourselves at Cabin xxx, home of our hosts. It is a very gorgeous space. At one point, there were probably nearly twenty people standing around chatting, and the room handled that number very comfortably, with room for an appetizer table and a bartender and butler to circulate as well. Everyone was very friendly and jovial, and while we aren’t world’s best minglers, we did pretty well. Two of our hosts in particular spent lots of time with us, told us hilarious stories about their travel adventures, and put as at ease. It was really fun. Afterwards, they invited us to join them for dinner, which we accepted. It was a party of eight (four couples.) Dinner was very fun, but was an even longer affair with eight people than it is for just the two of us, so we didn’t get back to the room until just about 10pm.

Once again, Compass Rose struggled with Lis’ diet. Her Caesar salad arrived covered in cheese, and for her entrée they just took away what she couldn’t have, instead of making her an alternative. We’ve really never experienced anything like it on Regent (on Celebrity, yes, but not on Regent). Lis might try to talk to somebody about it.

Links to Hubbard Glacier photos and videos from the cruise

6-3-08

Our good weather finally broke, and we woke up to rain and mist this morning. But in a way I think it was better, because we were going to see the Hubbard Glacier, and it seemed fitting that it should seem so Arctic. We went up to the Observation Lounge, but it was packed, so we decided to go get breakfast and sit out on the deck (aft Deck 11). But the aft deck wasn’t open, because of the weather. Lis wanted to get breakfast, but I saw that there was more and more ice, and we were getting closer and closer to the glacier, and I was gripped by a sort of glacier-mania; food could wait. I told Lis “I’m going down to 6,” took the camera, and left.

Aft on Deck 6 there is the Horizon Lounge, and then a deck behind it, which I had noticed before and thought would be an ideal alternate location if the Observation Lounge was full. Turns out I was only half right – the view was great and it was not crowded, but it was also a smoking area, so the few people who were there were smoking. But there weren’t many, and I was right down close to the water – so I decided to brave it. Lis, meanwhile, had finished her breakfast and made her way back to the Observation Lounge, where she eventually scored a seat right in front.

There was lots of ice, and the initial announcement from the bridge was “There’s lots of ice so we probably won’t be able to get close. We’ll see what we can do.” But then the captain and the ice pilot (who had come on the ship early this morning, along with a couple Tlingit women who did some interesting commentary over the PA system) were able to patiently wriggle us through the ice field, right up to the glacier. The destination specialist, Dr. Clark (or Dr. Valium, as one of our cocktail party friends had dubbed him) said that he hadn’t been this close to the glacier all of last summer. It was incredibly cool, and I felt very lucky.

Once we were in position, the captain came on and said we were going to stay here for a bit “so you can all get your pictures.” We stayed near the glacier about 45 minutes to an hour. The ship slowly turned, so that everyone had a good view. And once we were stationary, with the engines cut, we started being able to hear the thunder of the glaciers calving. At first, I was never able to see the actual calving, as the sound would reach us after the ice had fallen, but by the time we left I had become more practiced, and as we were leaving I saw this enormous sheet fall off, followed by a tremendous roar. It was very impressive.

Then it was time to leave the glacier and head toward Seward. We hung out in the room, starting to look at the pictures I had madly taken all morning. But there were a lot, and it was too much for Lis – she nodded off about halfway through and had a nice little pre-lunch nap. We did eventually look at them all, but haven’t yet started the job of culling them down to a reasonable amount.

There was an international barbeque on the pool deck – it was very good. I had ribs (excellent) and salad and fried potatoes. Lis had glass noodles, some sushi and half a hamburger (truly international, that girl). Then back to the room for more lounging and napping. Then it was time for trivia. We met our team of yesterday, and for the second day in row tied for first place and got tokens. In fact, we only missed one question. This time we also stayed for bingo (we made sure we were ready for the evening before we left the room, so there would be bingo time) but didn’t win anything.

As we were heading for the reception area, Lis was debating whether we should say anything about the spotty special diet of the last couple days. We figured we should talk to the hotel director, and were trying to decide the best way to go about contacting him, when he came striding around the corner. Lis flagged him down and told him our issues – he seemed appropriately concerned and said he would talk to the food and beverage manager. We didn’t have another specially prepared meal – managed to snag a seat in Latitudes after a cancellation – so we don’t know the results of our talk, though they were very solicitous in Latitudes.

Before dinner, it was the farewell cocktail party and crew talent show in the Constellation Theater. This was the first show we made it to, and I loved it very much. The crew members put on several numbers, and they were all great fun – particularly the YMCA number. There was a tall girl who was not a very good dancer, and not a very good singer (she had a solo), but was so clearly enjoying herself so completely that she was my favorite. Apparently I was not the only one who felt this way, because when they introduced the soloists she got the loudest hand, even though this other young man was a much better singer. Then more crew members marched out and we applauded them all, and then it was time for dinner.

Now we are packing our stuff to put outside, which is always a bit melancholy, but it was basically the perfect final sea day, so we feel happy. We’ve ordered room service coffee and tea and are going to bundle up and have a bon voyage balcony sit.

Links to Seward photos and videos from the cruise

6-4-08

And so arrives our last morning on the ship. I woke up early and was able to watch our approach in to Seward from the balcony. It was a foggy morning, so I was only able to get a glimpse of the snow capped peaks that surrounded us on all sides. Later, when the fog lifted some, we were able to see that Seward is in a gorgeous physical location. The town is very pleasant, too – we both liked Seward very much, and decided to try to have our next Alaska cruise be a Southbound, so we can start in Seward and maybe spend a couple days beforehand.

As we were coming in to Seward, I noticed a log floating by, which appeared to have a bird on each end. Then I noticed that one of the birds was moving about, but in a way I’d never seen a bird move before. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was a sea otter floating on her back, and the moving bird was her feet. There she was in the middle of the shipping lane, with a cruise ship going by on one side and a bunch of fishing boats going by on the other, just idly floating, completely unconcerned. I didn’t have time to run in the cabin to get binocs or camera, so just watched her go by.

After we docked, I continued to sit on the balcony, as it was too early yet to go to breakfast. Lis was in bed reading. After several minutes, I noticed a log floating in my direction, but this time it only took me a moment to realize that this log was my otter pal again. I called for Lis, and because we weren’t moving, and the otter was moving very slowly, I was able to get camera and binocs this time. She floated right under us. I wasn’t able to get too close with the camera, as we don’t have that much of a zoom, but with the binoculars we were able to see her very close, and watch her fluff her fur, look around at the ship, and then settle in to what looked like a nap. We watched her for a long time, but eventually she roused herself and swam away, plus it was time for breakfast.

We had laid out our stuff the night before, so got dressed, packed our carry on bags with the last of our stuff (we packed our big bags last night and set them outside our door) and departed our lovely cabin for the last time. We had a lovely breakfast, as always, in La Veranda (we decided that our favorite meal was breakfast in La Veranda) and then waited in the Library for our group to be called for debarkation. Our group was the last group, and we used the restroom one last time after our group was called – and so ended up being the very last passengers off the ship. Lisa, from the social staff, said “We were wondering where the girls were, and thought maybe we should just keep you.” It was very cute.

In Seward we took the trolley shuttle to the Train Wreck, a little mall comprised of three old train cars. There we were able to store our bags with the Exit Glacier Guides folks for ten bucks. Thus unencumbered, we walked to the Alaska SeaLife Center to pass the time until lunch. It was very nice. For lunch we found an excellent restaurant called Yoly’s Bistro – I had a very good hamburger, and Lis had an excellent chicken curry with peanut sauce. Highly recommend this restaurant to anyone spending any time in Seward.

My brother and his wife, who live in Anchorage, had very kindly offered to come pick us up in Seward and take us to the B&B we were staying at in Anchorage. They picked us up after lunch, and we headed north. Along the way we stopped at Exit Glacier, and hiked up to it. It was very cool – apparently one of the few hike-up-to-it glaciers around. The scenery was spectacular, and the glacier impressive – we could hear it making little sounds, and hear the melt water that was running underneath it.

We continued the drive to Anchorage, which has some of the most amazing scenery. We were hoping to see some moose along the way, as they are apparently often spotted at various points, but were out of luck (though we did see tons of moose droppings at the glacier). We stopped for dinner at the Double Musky, a restaurant located near the Alyeska Resort. When you walk in, it just looks like any other rural tavern you’ve ever been in, but it’s actually a 5 star restaurant, and the food was excellent and the portions huge. I just had an appetizer, and it was more than enough food. Then we drove through the resort, then went to my brother’s house for a bit and met their dog, and then it was time to head to the B&B.

We were staying at the Big Bear Bed & Breakfast in Anchorage. My brother was worried about its location (apparently not in the best part of town), but we decided to risk it (both of us having lived in dicey parts of towns before), and it wasn’t bad – though as my brother drove away there were about a million police car sirens going off somewhere near by. I asked him the next day if he had found that comforting – his wife said they had considered calling us to make sure we were ok. But no other incidents and we had a pretty good night’s sleep.

The B&B was a true B&B – a regular home, not an inn or hotel. It was full to overflowing with all sorts of Alaska bric-a-brac – bear skins and ivories and native art and pelts and figurines and antlers and such. At first I almost recoiled, I found it so over-stimulating. But once I adjusted it was really quite fascinating, like being in a museum. Every item had some sort of story, most close to the family – the two bear skins had been shot by the innkeeper’s father and grandfather, the oil paintings of natives and locals had been done by her mother, etc. And the breakfast was amazingly excellent. But I’m not sure it was the best choice at the end of a vacation, when you’re tired and want to get home, and socializing with even more people you don’t know starts to feel like a real chore indeed.

The next day my brother and his wife picked us up to take us to lunch and then the airport for our 2pm flight. We ate at the Sourdough Mining Company, and had another very good meal – we ate as well or better off the boat in Seward and Anchorage as we did on the boat, thanks in part of course to our excellent local tour guides. My brother and his wife were wonderful hosts, showing us the sights and taking us to great dining establishments, plus buying us a National Geographic Book about Alaska and a book of the Double Musky recipes – they were really great, and it was great seeing them. And then it was time to board our flight and come home.

(Note to future Alaska travelers: don’t try to load stuff up in a cooler with ice, tape it up, and check it as baggage – they will make you dump the ice out. Can’t tell you how many people we saw dumping ice out of coolers at the curb, and then sending their salmon steaks or reindeer sausage through sans cooling.)

Not much of a blog post here – just wanted to post a link to the photos we took of the ship itself. Enjoy.