The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 8, 2014

We’re Quickly Running Out of Frontiers Here: A Week in Alaska by Sea, Part 1

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 12:00 am

As much as I suspect a lot of us would like to have it hang around a little while longer, it looks like Summer has just come to an end.  As always, this is roughly when you start looking over what you did over the Summer and trying to make sure you didn’t waste it.  In my case, I have to admit that it just didn’t feel like I’ve really done much.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think I had been more than about 50 miles from home at any given point this Summer, and in fact hadn’t really traveled anywhere since the last Disneyland trip me and my friend took back in April just before our Annual Passes expired.  A lot of this is due to the fact that our big vacation for the Summer got scheduled for just about the last possible time we could have scheduled it, set to end just two days before the Autumnal Equinox.  To put the situation into football terms (I hear football is kind of popular around Seattle these days,) it’s basically a matter of being down 28-3  with a minute and a half to go in the fourth quarter, and trying to get down the field for a garbage time touchdown just so it looks like you didn’t get completely blown out.

Then again, much of the reason that we didn’t do much this Summer was because we had this particular trip planned.  Admittedly, in spite of the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of cruising over the past few years, Alaska has never been all that high on my list of possible destinations.  As I believe I’ve said here before, to me it seems like Alaska has the type of weather than I go on vacation to get away from. Then again, it was my friends who were planning this particular trip, so in a lot of ways I was just along for the ride.  Not that there was much of a ride involved anyway (at least not until we boarded the ship.)  One of the nice things about cruising to Alaska is that a lot of ships use Seattle as their homeport during the Alaska season.  For two Summers I have worked in Downtown Seattle just off the waterfront, which means that if I look out the window in some of the conference rooms at the office I can see the ships docked at either Bell Street Pier about half a mile away, or Smith Cove several miles beyond that.  It certainly makes the prospect of just hopping aboard one sound a lot more tantalizing when you can actually see the ships in port.  If nothing else, it’s kind of nice to take a cruise and not have to fly across the country twice to get there in back (nothing against Fort Lauderdale, which is a perfectly nice place to get away from the weather, but a quick 12-mile taxi ride to the pier is, shockingly, a little easier to deal with than a flight of 2,800 miles in each direction (not to mention a fair bit cheaper.)

The itinerary for this particular cruise would be a 7-day roundtrip out of Seattle, making stops in Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan and Victoria, as well as a day spent aboard the ship as it cruises slowly through Glacier Bay National Park (other ships with a similar itinerary may omit Glacier Bay in favor of Tracy Arm Fjord.)  Since I had been to none of those places (except for Victoria on a previous cruise) before, I didn’t know a whole lot about what to expect.  The ship, on the other hand, was in large part a known quantity, as if you’ve been on one Grand-class Princess ship you should have little trouble finding your way around any of the other ones.  The Golden Princess is one of the older ships in the fleet (she first sailed in 2001,) and is a sister ship to the Grand Princess and Star Princess.  Although these three ships were originally virtually identical, over time a number of renovations have taken the three ships in significantly different directions.  Nonetheless, even with the various changes between the three ships you are going to find that the passenger experience is pretty consistent across the Princess fleet regardless of which ship you happen to be on.  All in all, it’s not a bad way to go.

After the jump, a look at some of the highlights from the trip.


July 30, 2013

To Get Away From it All, Don’t You Have to Get Away First?

Filed under: Random Stuff, travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 11:31 pm

(Note:  This post started out as a message board post, so I apologize in advance for any unexplained jargon that may creep in.)

I’m not saying that my job has been overly stressful lately, but if nothing else, there’s certainly been plenty of it to go around.  My timecard at work for the past couple of weeks ended up being in excess of 100 hours, including spending most of a Saturday at work a couple of weekends ago (as well as the Saturday before that.)  Without getting into too many details, it seems to be one of those situations where it basically just ends up being one thing after another, and where things never seem to quite have time to settle down before something flares up again.  In theory, I still have a cubicle that nominally belongs to me at the office, but I’m there so rarely these days that on the rare occasions when I make it down there, mysterious piles of snacks have started randomly showing up when I’m not looking. This odd behavior leads me to wonder some sort of cargo cult has sprung up around my cubicle in my absence (John Frum, as always, could not be reached for comment.)  As I’ve mentioned before, even with all the time I ended up taking off work back in April and May, with all the overtime I’ve been working it has eventually managed to even out, and I think at this point I’m even actually several days “ahead” for the year.  After spending months dealing with a project like this, the thought of just getting away from it all for a while and taking a nice long trip starts to sound really appealing.  And come this December, I intend to do just that.

As usual, since I seem to be stuck in a pretty serious rut when it comes to my vacation plans, I’ll be spending my upcoming vacation at sea, taking a nice long (by my standards anyway) 10-day Caribbean cruise in early December along with one of my friends, and throwing in a couple of extra days in Florida before and after the cruise to make it (almost) a nice even two weeks.  This will actually be the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to do a cruise of more than 7-days, (so far, I’ve done three 7-day Caribbean cruises, but most of the cruises I’ve been on so far have been various shorter ones than that up and down the Pacific Coast of between one and five days). For many years I’ve found myself mostly in one of two situations when it comes to time off from work:  Either I have plenty of time and no money to do much of anything with it (typically known as “being unemployed”,) or I have had plenty of money on hand but no time to do much of anything (typically known as “being employed and single.”)  Although I’ve been able to sneak a few cruises in here and there (mostly joining my parents and other family on some of their various cruises) I just haven’t really had the luxury of being able to take more than a week or so off work at a time. In fact, this time around my original plan was to find a 7-day cruise of some sort in December (there was some talk last year of doing some sort of a family cruise over Christmas this year that never materialized) and I had made plans to book an Eastern Caribbean sailing on the Crown Princess sometime in June. When it came time to actually put down a deposit though, it turned out that for roughly the price of a balcony on the 7-day cruise I was looking at, I could get an interior cabin on a 10-day Southern Caribbean cruise instead getting a much more interesting itinerary out of the deal (not to mention free gratuities thrown in thanks to a promo Princess was running.)  Given the choices, I would much rather take three extra days (and three ports I haven’t been to before) even if I have to sail in an interior cabin to do it.

Of course, in many ways booking the trip is the easy part.  It’s easy enough to pick out a cruise and put down a deposit on a cabin, but figuring out the logistics of actually getting there and back can be far more tricky indeed.  Even though I’m only spending three more days at sea compared to what I had originally planned, the way the schedule works out on this basically requires taking two whole weeks off work, which certainly complicates things. With a 7-day itinerary, one can generally rely on having their embarkation day on a Saturday or Sunday, and if they can finagle convenient flights they can manage to do that while using just five days of vacation time, or if they want a little extra wiggle room they can throw in an extra day or two before boarding. For example, if I’m on a 7-day sailing with a Sunday departure date, I might take a redeye flight on Friday night and arrive early Saturday, spend a night in a hotel (following a day of sleep deprived fun, but that’s another story)  and then board the ship the following day, catching a flight back on the afternoon after disembarkation a week later to be back in the office on Monday.   A Saturday departure is a bit trickier without either taking an extra day off work to fly in some time on either Thursday night or during the day on Friday, or daring to flaunt the First Rule of Cruising (which, as you quickly learn if you spend any time on the Cruise Critic message boards, is that you should never fly in on the day of the cruise lest you put yourself at risk of missing the boat if anything at all goes wrong with your flights) and take a Friday night redeye flight.  Either way, it takes a bit of planning to figure out (and to be perfectly honest I’m not a big fan of cross-country redeye flights anyway if I can help it) but it is doable.

When you add three days to that and start looking at 10-day itineraries or longer, your embarkation day could be basically any day of the week, which pretty much throws all that logic out the window. In this case, I’m fortunate to have one of the “easier” scenarios to deal with, since the cruise I will be on departs on a Monday and comes back the following Thursday.  On one hand, the way this is scheduled means that even though the cruise is only ten days long I basically have to take two whole weeks off work to do it.  On the other hand, it does allow the “luxury” of a convenient weekend to fly in (without having to do a redeye, something that I certainly approve of) and have an extra day in Fort Lauderdale  before boarding the ship, plus another day and a half (or so) to spend after the disembarking before flying out on Friday afternoon (in theory I could fly back on Thursday, but a) the flight schedules really didn’t work out, and b) why bother?)  In theory I could even tack on a couple more days to the end of that and fly back on Sunday, but given the fact that the return flights are getting rather close to the Christmas rush, it quickly gets to be too expensive to do that  And that’s not even getting into the various hotel, rental car and other arrangements that might need to be made along the way.

For something that’s supposed to be a nice relaxing getaway, it sure doesn’t seem that way while you’re in the process of trying to get it all sorted out, but by the time you get through all of it, make the trip and walk up the gangway to board the ship, I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll have completely forgotten about all of that within ten minutes.  And really, when it comes down to it, isn’t that the point?

May 21, 2013

How to Conveniently Ignore the Usual Crises for a Weekend or So

Filed under: travel — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:30 am

In what seems to be turning into an oddly recurring pattern lately, once again the past couple of weeks have seen me alternating between being on vacation and being incredibly busy at work.  This past week saw me getting off a cruise ship in Vancouver on Monday following a three-day trip up the coast, then working 49 hours in the next five days (including 11 hours on Saturday) as the team I’m on remains in crunch mode trying to get stuff out the door.  Somehow, I suspect that if I hadn’t spent the weekend on a cruise ship I probably would have spent much of it at work anyway, but that’s another story.  Fortunately, I’ve only got one more iteration of this recurring pattern to deal with, as I head for the Deep South for a few days for my brother’s wedding in Atlanta, followed by a couple of days of wandering around the area, then things settle down for a while (and by “settle down,” I suspect I mean that they’re going to get even busier at work.)  On one hand, it’s kind of nice to be able to have the ability to travel as much as I do.  On the other hand, a lot of traveling means that I’m spending a lot of time getting from one place to another.  Fortunately most of it is flights up and down the West Coast which are relatively easy, but the trip back home from the cruise (itself a  3-day ship ride, but after sorting out all the various conveyances involved in the cruise, we figured it went something like this:

  • Drive a car to an offsite airport parking lot;
  • Take a shuttle bus from there to the airport;
  • Take a plane to LAX;
  • Take a taxi to the cruise ship;
  • Ride the cruise ship up the coast from Los Angeles to Vancouver over the course of three days;
  • Take the Vancouver Skytrain from the ship to the train station in Vancouver (after walking most of the way there and back to the cruise terminal while wandering around to kill some time);
  • Take the Amtrak Cascades down from Vancouver back to Seattle;
  • Take the Light Rail back to the airport;
  • Catch another shuttle bus back to the parking lot;
  • Drive home.

For what’s supposed to be a relaxing vacation (in theory, at least) that sure seems to be a lot of running around.  And that’s just a 3-day weekend getaway.  Me and some of my friends are already in the process of looking into a potential 12-day Mediterranean cruise next Summer, which I suspect will turn out to be considerably more complex.   Of course, we do also have an entire year to plan that one,  so there should be plenty of time to figure things out.

As for the cruise itself, it was, as usual, a nice little getaway, although with only three days, it certainly felt short.  Not quite as short as the somewhat ill-advised 1-day trip I took a couple of years back where it seemed like we spent almost as much time in the security line at Canada Place as we spent actually on the ship, but certainly not like a full 7-day cruise either.   As seems to be the case with a lot of the Coastal cruises I’ve been on, the weather at sea wasn’t all that great, with much of the trip spent in fog, and not much opportunity to spend time above decks.  On one hand it was a bit of a shame because we had received a really nice  upgrade to a Caribe deck balcony cabin with one of the larger balconies to be found on the ship (not bad for having booked an obstructed oceanview cabin) and didn’t get much chance to take advantage of it.  As I’ve noted on some of the other cruises I’ve taken, when there’s fog at sea the ship’s horn is sounded at regular intervals, which can get a bit annoying after a while.  On the other hand, there was enough going on elsewhere on the ship that this wasn’t too big a deal.  Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed the trip, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be going somewhere warm for the next one.

As for the ship itself (the Island Princess,) it was a nice shape in good condition, but I do have to admit that it took a little bit of getting used to.  I’ve been on six other cruises on four other Princess ships, but this is the first time I’ve been on one of the two Panamax ships in the Princess fleet (the Island Princess and her sister ship Coral Princess spend much of the year doing Panama Canal cruises when they aren’t in Alaska),  and although all of the various Grand class ships in the fleet share a substantially similar layout, the Coral and Island Princess very quite a bit from the others.  For example, the Horizon Court buffet is located on the forward section of the Lido Deck instead of the aft where you’d find it on a Grand class ship.  Similarly, the entrances to the two main dining rooms are located at the forward part of the ship’s atrium instead of the aft part where you’d find them on the other ships (there’s also a third dining room on the other ships that isn’t present on this one.)  And even though there’s plenty of stuff that’s different between the Panamax ships and the other Princess ships, there’s also plenty of stuff that’s in similar locations as well.  As a result of this, it took me a couple of days to get my bearings and to stop going the wrong way down the hallways trying to find our cabin.  I’m pretty sure the next time I sail on one of these ships I’ll have figured things out already and this won’t be an issue anymore, but it’s definitely something to keep in mind when you sail on one of these ships.  Then again, most people who sail aboard the Island Princess tend to have more time than we did to figure things out (the ship spends much of the year sailing 10 and 14-day Panama Canal trips, and it spends its Alaska season going back and forth between Vancouver and Whitter Alaska (a small town about 60 miles away from Anchorage) on alternating 7-day one-way trips.

Anyway, in spite of whatever difficulties may have arisen in finding one’s way around, the staff was friendly, the service was good, the ship was clean and well cared for, and things were overall quite nice.  Boarding was also quite simple and painless, which probably owes a lot to the fact that a third of the passengers on the ship had boarded at Fort Lauderdale and were continuing onward to Vancouver, so there were fewer people there to board the ship than one might normally expect.  Even if the ship was full (as it usually is), it never really felt crowded, which can be a bit of an unusual experience compared to some of the larger Princess ships (the Island Princess only holds 1,970 passengers and 900 crew, while the Crown, Emerald and Ruby Princess hold 3,080 passengers and 1,200 crew each, and the soon-to-be-launched Royal Princess will hold 3,600 passengers.)  Tables in the main dining room were easy to come by, as were seats in the theater (something of a sore spot for passengers on some of the larger Princess ships.)  Competition for deck chairs was virtually nonexistent, probably owing mostly to the fact that the weather wasn’t particularly conducive to spending much time outdoors.  All in all, it was a nice little getaway from what’s been a stressful few months at work, and I’d gladly do something like this again.  Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure I’m thinking Caribbean again for the next one, preferably when there’s some weather that I need to get away from.

May 10, 2013

Yes, Lutzes are Still Cruise-Taking Nerds.

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 10:28 am


For someone who has frequent flyer cards on three different airlines, I really don’t travel all that much.  Nonetheless, it sure seems like I’m doing a lot of traveling these days.  Once again, I’m blogging from an airplane as I had down for the second of three trips in two months (the third coming up in a couple of weeks when I head down to Atlanta for my brother’s wedding and apparently a bit of aimless wandering around the Deep South.)  Nonetheless, for as much traveling as I have been doing lately, I never quite seem to completely get the hang of it, and always manage to forget something.  This time around, I managed to completely forget to bring any chargers for my phone or Kindle.  Given the fact that I don’t really plan to use either of them much for the next few days, this probably isn’t a big deal.

If you’ve been reading this Blog for long enough, you’ll know that I tend to spend a lot of my vacations these days either at Disneyland or on a cruise ship, and since I just did the other one a couple of weeks ago, you can probably guess which one I’m doing this time.  It’s just a quick three-day trip up the coast from LA to Vancouver, but with as busy as work has been lately, the respite is certainly welcome at this point.  It also provides a chance to try out a type of ship I haven’t been on before (I have made plenty of trips on the various Grand class Princess ships. But this will be my first time on one of the two Panamax ships in the fleet.)  This particular trip doesn’t stop anywhere, but we will have a little bit of time to spend in Vancouver between getting off the ship and taking a train back to Seattle.  So far, I don’t think we have any idea what we’re supposed to do there, but I’m sure we’ll figure out something.

There’s already talk of doing a 12-day Mediterranean cruise next Summer as well, but at this point that seems so far away that it’s hard to think to much about that one.  I haven’t been to Europe in over 20 years since I went to Germany for three weeks back in 1993, so that sounds like an interesting way to go see the Old Continent.  Then again, I hear those Mediterranean itineraries are pretty packed with ports almost every day, so that might not exactly be the best cruise to relax on either.

Ever have one of those vacation where you feel like you need a vacation from your vacation by the time you’re done?  For some reason that seems to happen a lot for me lately.  Then again, this one has been planned well in advance of any of the other recent trips (I believe we booked this back in November) so the other ones might be the stressful vacations you take just so you have an excuse to take a relaxing one.  And since this cruis has no stops, there should be plenty of time to do whatever I want, up to and including nothing. In just a few short hours I plan to be doing plenty of that for a while.

October 1, 2011

Life in the Slow Lane: Cruising Down the Pacific Coast on the Sapphire Princess

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 8:04 pm

From where I am writing this in my apartment in Downtown Bellevue, the approximate distance by car to any given point in the Los Angeles metropolitan area is going to be roughly 1,150 miles, give or take 50 miles depending on exactly what your final destination happens to be.  Assuming reasonably ideal conditions (of the kind that are rarely found much of anywhere) Bing Maps estimates the trip down I-5 to be a roughly 17 hour drive, while by air, a nonstop flight from Sea-Tac Airport to either LAX (954 miles) or John Wayne airport (978 miles) in Orange County will get you there in about 2 1/2 hours of flight time, plus whatever time you have to allow for getting to the airport and through the various mandatory pre-flight inconveniences beforehand.  A far more leisurely option than either flying or driving is the Amtrak Coast Starlight, which completes the trip between LA and Seattle in just 34 1/2 hours, or roughly twice as long as it would take to make the same trip by car.

Although the drive is certainly doable, the vast majority of travelers between Seattle and LA will be making the trip by air, being the fastest and in most cases the cheapest option out of these (I figure that my car would take about three tanks of gas in each direction to get there and back at a cost of about $50 a tank, whereas flights between Sea-Tac and LAX can often be found for $79 each way, and Orange County for only a little bit more than that.)  A train ticket can also be purchased relatively cheaply (assuming you can handle 36 hours in a coach class seat without completely losing your mind,) but for those people for whom a day in a half is just too fast, there’s another option:  Why not go by sea?

Granted, the days of the classic ocean liners are now just an increasingly distant memory, so it’s not exactly a matter of just hopping on the nearest ship to get from point A to point B.  In fact, most of the itineraries being sailed by the many cruise ships found throughout the world are round trips, beginning and ending in the same port and throwing in a few sunny and/or exotic destinations along the way.  There are a few that make one-way trips, but obscure Maritime laws from the 1880s prevent foreign-flagged passenger vessels (which is basically every cruise ship in the world except for one stationed in Hawaii) from making one-way trips from one US port to another one unless they stop in a distant foreign port (which, in this case means somewhere in South America,) so almost all of the one-way trips made by cruise ships, with the exception of a few Panama Canal trips that make a port call in Colombia, Aruba, Bonaire or Curacao along the way, would have to originate from a foreign port to be legal.

This was the case with the trip I took last week, which was a one-way trip down the Pacific Coast from Vancouver to Los Angeles.  In a Grand Class Princess ship, a nonstop trip can be made between Vancouver and Los Angeles in approximately three days at a top speed of 22.1 knots (although in practice the ship will only go as fast as it needs to in order to make it to the next port on schedule,) but this particular trip added port calls in Victoria and San Francisco along the way for a total of five days and 1,244 nautical miles of travel (which comes out to a bit over 1,400 statute miles.)   If you’re in a hurry, than this certainly wouldn’t be the way to go, but being in a hurry really isn’t the point here.  Far from it, in fact.

Although a cruise to pretty much anywhere provides a nice little chance to get away from things and unwind for a while with only as many distractions as you permit yourself, this particular trip was interesting primarily for being a somewhat unusual itinerary, as these ships generally only do a couple of repositioning cruises a year.  Oddly enough, before I took this trip I had never been to Victoria at all, and the only times I had been in San Francisco previously were on airport layovers, which don’t exactly give you much chance to see the place.  I also haven’t had much time in Vancouver, which is really one of the nicer places I’ve seen to sail out of on a ship.

Perhaps the most interesting features of this particular trip that one would be hard pressed to find on another cruise were the nighttime sailaways out of both Vancouver and San Francisco.  Although the embarkation mess at Canada Place back in May when me, my sisters and their husbands went on the one-day trip down to Seattle didn’t exactly give me the best impression of the place, boarding was much easier and quicker this time around, and the Midnight sailaway even provided a chance to get off the ship for a while and go wander around town a bit after the mandatory safety drill.   Which was a good thing, because I found out a bit too late to do anything about it that I had forgotten to pack swim trunks, so I had to make a trip back into the city to find some lest I find myself unable to make use of the ship’s many pools.  Fortunately I managed to find a Sears on Robson Street that had them on closeout, and my vacation was un-ruined.

I don’t have a lot of pictures of Victoria, but I didn’t do a whole lot there anyway, mostly just went into town and wandered a bit.  I figure Victoria is close enough that I could get there as a day trip without too much trouble if I want to spend more time there.  The ride down to San Francisco from there was mostly foggy, and as a result didn’t provide a lot to see.  The fact that the ship’s horn was blasting for five seconds every couple of minutes also made it tough to spend much time above deck.  Fortunately, the weather in San Francisco was nice and sunny, but for much of the day the Bay was covered by a strange layer of thick fog that just never went away.  Originally, my plan for San Francisco was to take a trip over to Alcatraz, but due to some issues with customs that caused delays in allowing passengers off the ship, the shore excursion I had planned ended up getting cancelled.  Instead, I took a boat tour of the bay which went underneath the Golden Gate Bridge (which was a good thing, because when the ship went under it while departing San Francisco, there was so much fog we couldn’t see anything but a few vague lights.)  This was about as good a view as I was able to get of the bridge, although the fog does make for some interesting photos on its own.

The stop in San Francisco also featured a nighttime departure, and some excellent views of the city on the way out.  If you look in the background here, you can see some of the incredibly thick fog that had begun to form on the Bay and the surrounding areas, but never quite reached the city itself.   All in all, it’s an interesting place to visit, and one of these days I may have to go back to try to get to Alcatraz again, but I’m not so sure I’d ever want to live there.

All in all, I quite enjoyed this trip, although it would have been nice if the weather on the sea days could have been a bit better  On the other hand, it definitely could have been worse; the Sapphire Princess’ sister ship Golden Princess made the trip down from Vancouver to Los Angeles a few days after we did, and encountered some pretty severe weather off the Washington and Oregon coasts that actually broke some windows on the ship.  Next year, the Sapphire Princess’ southbound repositioning cruise will be done as a seven-day itinerary instead of this year’s five days, and add stops in Nanaimo BC and San Diego along the way.  After this particular trip I wouldn’t hesitate to book this ship or this itinerary again.  Just don’t plan on being in too much of a hurry.

March 21, 2011

Set an Open Course for the Virgin Sea

Filed under: travel, Wanderings — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:06 am

Finally, after several months of waiting and slogging through what passes for a Seattle winter, the cruise is now less than a week away.  In fact, exactly seven days from the time I am writing this, I fully expect to be aboard the Ruby Princess and halfway to Eleuthera.  Of course, along with being less than a week away, there’s also a whole bunch of prep work I have to do to get ready.  I’ve already made several updates to my Loud Tropical Shirt collection (living around here doesn’t provide much opportunity to put such things to good use unfortunately), and sent my suit off to the somewhat pricey dry cleaning service they have here in the building so I have it ready for the two formal nights aboard the ship, but there’s still plenty that needs to be done before leaving.  I’ve still got a week of work to get through, end-of-the-month bills to pay, a bunch of documents to print and stuff to get (and I need to figure out how to pack it all in the meantime), and I suppose  if I was good I’d probably try to get my taxes done before I go too so I can see how much I need to win in the casino on this trip (Editor’s note:  This is a really bad idea.  Don’t try this.  Ever.  I mean it.

I don’t think that any of these things are going to be anything I am going to have any trouble getting done between now and then, but it occurs to me that sometimes it can take a lot of work just to get ready to spend a week not really doing much.  In particular, the whole idea of having Formal Nights on the ship seems to set a lot of expectations that some people might not necessarily want to deal with on their vacations.  On the cruising board I’ve been reading a fair bit of in preparation for this cruise, I’ve seen that there are three particular topics that seem to generate heated debate:  Smoking in cabins, formal nights, and chair hogs on the Lido deck.  On one side, you’ve got the people who think that their whole cruise is going to be ruined if they have to look at someone who dares to enter the dining room without a tuxedo on a formal night, while on the other side you’ve got the people who think they should be able to wander in wearing t-shirts and flip flops and nobody should complain.  You can probably imagine the results.  In reality, from my previous cruise the average seems to be a nice dark suit and tie, which is how I plan to go.  I think they’ve only ever managed to get me in a tux once, and that was for my sister’s wedding reception.  Not that the result was disastrous or anything like that (well, at least I didn’t try to burn the pictures or anything) but I’ve never been big on dressing up, even though I can usually manage it when the occasion permits. 

But even with the formal night there are alternatives if you don’t want to participate (you can still visit the specialty restaurants on the ship in the “smart casual” dress that’s the norm for the dining rooms on the other days, or there’s always the buffet and room service if you don’t want to bother with those,) and the only truly “must do” activity aboard the ship for the whole entire week is the Coast Guard mandated muster drill that takes place before the ship leaves port.  It’s the kind of vacation that gives you options to do as much stuff as you want, or none at all.  Of course, as I’ve probably alluded to a number of times here, I am terrible at doing nothing when I’m on vacation, and even worse at not completely overdoing it.  You’d think that boarding a ship that’s going to be spending most of a week out in the open ocean would be a good place to just sit back and relax for a while, but modern cruise ships aren’t exactly the tiny little Love Boat type ships you used to find most lines sailing (a few of those ships do still exist, but they tend to stick to itineraries that are just a bit too exotic for the amount of vacation time I’ve got available right now.)  The Princess Grand and Crown class ships are all 951 feet long, 118 feet wide, and too big to fit in the Panama Canal (at least until the new set of locks under construction is completed.)  This means that if you’re on one end of the ship (the cabin I’ve been assigned for this trip is the second cabin from the bow on deck 5) and the other people you’re with are on the other end, it’s not going to be a trivial walk to get there.  One of the defining features of the Grand Class Princess ships is a Promenade deck that goes all the way around the ship in one continuous loop.  Walking a mile requires just three laps around the Promenade.  It’s a bit cliché to say that these large ships are cities at sea, but it’s an apt description.  There’s plenty to see and plenty to do to fill up a week without ever leaving the ship (in fact, on the two gigantic Royal Caribbean Oasis class ships, it’s apparently fairly common to have passengers just never get off the ship at any of the ports.)  Personally, I couldn’t see doing this (in fact, if there’s one fundamental flaw to cruising it’s that there’s just not enough time in some of the ports) but the option is definitely there if you want it.

All in all, a lot of how I plan to spend this trip is, even now, still up in the air.  However it happens though, you should be hearing about it soon enough.  Given the high cost of Internet on the ship, chances are you won’t be hearing much from me while I’m aboard (St. Thomas has Sprint coverage so I may post something from there) but there should be plenty when I get back.  If I ever actually decide to come back, that is. I seriously doubt it would ever come to that (cruising is nice, but I suspect I’d get sick of it sooner than later if I did too much of it) but if it did, at least the weather would probably be nice.

February 19, 2011

Can You Really Get Away From It All Anymore?

Filed under: travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 2:54 am
Artwork from the Star Princess. Remember kids, do not try this at home.

When people go on vacations, they do so for all sorts of different reasons.  Some people want to go see new places and explore strange and distant lands (such as Montana or Sequim.)  Other people want to go out into the wilderness for adventure, scenery, and half a zillion bug bites (give or take a few.)  Still others want to cram as much fun and/or partying into their vacation as they possibly can.  This is what I usually end up doing when I’m on vacation, and although I’m not the type to go out and party, I do find I tend on occasion to just try to cram too much stuff into a trip.  I suspect part of this has to do with the relative lack of vacation time I’ve had in the past, and the short trips I’ve generally been taking as a result of this.  When I’m on vacation I seem to have this little voice in the back of my head that likes to remind me that I only have 47 hours of vacation remaining, and I’ve only been on the Haunted Mansion five times on this trip, and I should really hurry if I’m going to get another 12 rides in.  This is a tendency that is pretty much completely incompatible with a relaxing vacation. 

Then again, it could be worse.  On the Disney boards I read when I’m planning trips to the various  parks, there are a fair number of people who plan the heck out of their trips, , some going as far as to create timetables down to the minute of what rides they should be on at what times, and when they should be grabbing what Fastpasses.  While the planners are quick to point out that careful planning can seriously cut back on line-waiting and make a busy day a lot more productive than it would otherwise be, but predictably, things rarely go according to plan, and when things go off the rails, it can’t be pretty.  Unofficially, it seems that Epcot has developed something of a reputation as being the Meltdowniest Place on Earth (don’t expect to see that one in the commercials anytime soon,) and some members of the board have come to describe the conditions that can be caused by such obsessive planning by the derisive name of “Death March Tourism.”  And yes, the term has come to mind when I found myself at the back of the Epcot World Showcase after the fireworks with my feet threatening to go on strike due to unfair working conditions, a crowd of people headed for the exits, more than a mile of walking to get to the bus stop (and yes, I checked that distance,) and the knowledge that the bus back to the hotel was going to be standing room only when I actually made it there.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the other major reason people go on vacations:  To get away from it all.  With all the various pressures of day-to-day living, it’s no wonder a lot of people want vacations to be as uneventful as they can possibly be.  Although I know I’m not one of them, I know plenty of people whose vacations consist of heading to somewhere sunny and tropical and doing as little as they can get away with while they’re there, up to and including nothing at all.  This is pretty much the exact opposite to how I take vacations, but I can definitely see the merits of a nice relaxing getaway.  And what better place to get away than the high seas?  In fact, the current marketing slogan for Princess Cruise Lines is “Escape Completely.”  On the surface, a cruise ship seems like the ideal place to get away from it all.  Even though you’ll be making a number of port calls along the way, much of the trip will be spent out in the middle of nowhere.  You’ll be surrounded by all the amenities you could possibly want, but at the same time surrounded by nothing but the high seas for miles around, and nothing on the horizon but the occasional island, oil rig or other passing ship.  But even on a cruise ship in the middle of nowhere these days you can’t quite manage to get away from it all.  In the modern world, it all tends to be a bit more difficult to get away from than you might think.

As of when I am writing this post, my upcoming vacation is now approximately five weeks away, but I’ve had it booked since early December.  Given my longstanding tendencies to plan vacations with relatively short notice, I generally have only weeks rather than months to anticipate an upcoming trip, and as most people who know me will attest, I am not exactly the most patient person in the world.  I’m not saying I already have a suitcase packed or anything like that (I suppose I should at least do some laundry first,) but I’ve spent a bunch of time researching various things, planning out stuff (or mostly planning stuff that I’m not going to do really) and generally just spending way too much time wishing vacation would hurry up and get here.  Having been on a couple of cruises before on one of the Princess Grand Class ships (the Star Princess) I think I’ve got a reasonable idea of what to expect, and I’ve been to a couple of the ports on this trip before as well, but  for the most part, it’s going to be a whole week of nothing in particular to look forward to.  I’ve got a couple of things planned which I would like to do, but beyond that, pretty much everything’s up in the air.

One thing that I don’t plan to do on this trip is spend a bunch of time on the computer.  I do intend to bring the iPad to use for some reading and writing, and believe it or not most cruise ships do have Internet access these days, but if the fact that you’ve got a big 950 foot long, 116,000 ton floating city full of things to do up to and (including nothing at all) doesn’t give you a good excuse to get off the computer, the exorbitant cost of Internet access (as much as 75 cents per minute for a connection of sometimes dubious reliability) will.  Oh, and if you really want you can even use your cell phone on board, but that’s even more ridiculously expensive at $2.49 a minute (and yes, there are horror stories of people getting home from their vacation with $5,000 phone bills because they forgot to turn off their iPhones when they went on their trip.)  Now there are obviously perfectly valid reasons why one would need to be on the Internet while on vacation, but there’s also plenty of reasons why you wouldn’t want to be.   The staterooms on the ship are also equipped with televisions that get a number of channels, and if a major sporting event happens while you’re at sea there’s a pretty good chance they’ll have it on the giant screen out on the pool deck (the cruise I’m going to be on happens to coincide with the first couple of games of the NCAA Final Four. )  Sure you can get away from the world, but sometimes the world manages to find you anyway.
Granted, this is only a 7-day cruise, with only two days that are spent completely at sea,  a round trip totalling a couple thousand miles.  For a 100,000 ton cruise ship, that’s practically a run to the grocery store.  At the end of the Caribbean cruising season, the Ruby Princess will be spending the summer in the Mediterranean, which means a Transatlantic voyage with seven straight days at sea to get there.  The first cruise that I went on back in 2003 was a nonstop repositioning cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver, with three days at sea.  Even with a giant ship loaded with amenities, I can see where someone might get a bit of cabin fever on a trip like that, especially when one is prone to seasickness.  I don’t necessarily think I’m immune to it, but on the last cruise I took, I had some issues the first night and then none at all for the rest of the week.  For the most part the weather was reasonable (if a bit rainy) on that trip though, and I’m not sure how I’d handle rougher seas, especially the ones you might run into on a longer trip.   Still, if there’s anywhere you’re going to get away from it all that doesn’t involve a campout in the Sahara Desert, that seems like as good a place as any.  I suppose a lot of this depends on your attitude.  If you come on board with all your cares and troubles packed in your suitcase, you’re obviously not going to get away from them.  Then again, if you leave them on the dock and don’t worry about things, you’ll be a lot happier.
Can you truly escape completely these days?  To be honest, I’m not sure, but at least the getaway vehicle makes for a nice ride.

December 2, 2010

The Cruise Taking Nerds Set Sail Again

Filed under: travel — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 1:21 am

Given the fact that for most of the last decade I have been working as a contractor, vacation time has frequently proven difficult to come by.  It always seems to be a matter of having either money and no time, or time and no money.  When I was working for Volt (which was a majority of the time I spent contracting) I would accrue vacation at the rate of 1 week for every nine months worked, but on all but a couple of occasions this meant I’d have vacation available only a couple of months before I would have to take three months off anyway, making it kind of pointless to take the time off instead of working all the hours I could while I was still there and getting the vacation time paid off at the end of the assignment.  As for the time and no money, that usually came in the form of unemployment, although even then, on occasion I might be in decent enough shape at the end of a contract assignment to sneak away for a few days.  With a couple of exceptions (including the Disney World trip in 2008 and the whirlwind Route 66 trip I took in 2007 shortly before I started this Blog, from which the material for my abandoned gas stations post came) most of the vacations I’ve taken  have been short ones, usually planned around only being able to get away with taking one or two days off. 

One of the rare instances during this period where I was able to get away and take an actual honest-to-goodness vacation was back in April of 2005, when me, my brother Jared, his then future wife Emily, and my younger sister Heather were able to accompany my parents on a 7-day Caribbean cruise aboard the Star Princess, from which the above picture came.  Although this actually wasn’t the first time I had ever been on a cruise (I had actually been on this same ship for a short 3-day repositioning cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver a couple of years earlier) it was the first time I ever had the opportunity to visit the Caribbean.  Destinations on this particular cruise included a short stop in Puerto Rico (San Juan,) St. Thomas, Tortola and Princess Cays (Princess Cruises’ “private island,” which isn’t actually so much an island as it is a beach on the southern tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas that happens to be somewhat detached from the main island.)  It certainly wasn’t a relaxing vacation, but then again I’ve never been known to be any good at relaxing on vacations anyway, so this didn’t come as too much of a surprise.  The weather for portions of the trip was somewhat less than cooperative;  The trip ashore in San Juan resulted in a particularly notable drenching on that trip, and even though the weather mostly cooperated in St. Thomas it wasn’t exactly the dryest place I’ve ever been either.  I actually wrote a fair bit about the cruise at the time while I was on the ship, but the whole thing seems to be somewhere in the proverbial dustbin of history by now.  Still, I do have nearly 500 photos from the trip on my hard drive, and can recall quite a bit about it from those.

In spite of a little bit of rain here and there and some occasional rough seas, it was a nice vacation.  I found the dolphin swim on Tortola to be just a bit overrated, but one of my favorite parts of the cruise was getting to go scuba diving on St. Thomas, and I also managed to win $100 in the casino which helped offset  some of the onboard and shore excursion expenses from the trip (it could have been as much as $200 but I couldn’t quite leave well enough alone.)  I’ve been meaning to go back for another cruise for some time now, but due to the whole “money and no time/time and no money” situation noted above, the opportunity really hasn’t presented itself.  When we went in 2005 my parents were already seasoned cruisers, and since that time they have continued to go on cruises roughly once every 12-18 months, which almost always means that I end up staying here and watching Imola and Minardi for them while they’re off cruising.  Various factors have prevented me from being able to go again… until now. 

Having finally landed in a full-time job with full-time benefits means that I can now accrue up to three weeks of paid vacation time per year, which is a far cry from the one week per nine months that was the best I was able to get while I was contracting (most of the contract agencies either offer no vacation time at all or reduce your base hourly rate by a lot more than the vacation time is worth if you take it.)  For some time now my parents and several of my aunts and uncles have been planning to all go on a Caribbean cruise in late March of next year.  Thanks to my new job, it turns out that this will be exactly when I have enough accrued time to take a week off, meaning that for the first time in years I actually have both the money and the time to join them.  Not only does this mean that I get to join them on the cruise, but I also get to bring my brother Jason (who I don’t see nearly enough of these days) along for the ride.  I will be sailing in late March aboard the Ruby Princess (the newest ship in the Princess fleet) for a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise, which will be making stops at Princess Cays (of course), St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Grand Turk along the way. 

It certainly seems like it should be a fun bunch of people to be stuck on a boat with for a week, although I’m pretty sure someone would probably yell at me for calling a 950-foot, 116,000 ton behemoth a “boat”.  One of the nice things about a cruise ship this big is that there’s enough space that even with 3,500 passengers aboard there’s enough space that things never really truly feel crowded.  I do find that I tend to get a bit sick of fancy food after a while on the ship though, and on the two cruises I’ve been on I’ve found myself heading straight for the junkiest fast food I could find as soon as I disembarked the ship.  On this particular trip, the only truly must-do activity I’ve got on my itinerary is to go scuba diving in St. Thomas again.  I’ve half-considered even getting PADI open water certification before going on the cruise, but a combination of expense and not exactly being thrilled about the prospect of having to dive multiple times in Puget Sound in the dead of Winter to complete the training probably mean that I’ll end up just doing the beginner dive at Coki Beach again.  Aside from that, it’s all pretty much up in the air for now.  Which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. 

It’s been nearly six years since I last went on a cruise, and I’m definitely looking forward to getting the chance to go again.  There’s just one minor inconvenience along the way:  Right now, there just happens to be an entire Winter between now and the cruise in late March.  A La Nina winter at that, which is apparently supposed to make things extra miserable or something like that.  Something tells me that in the unlikely event that I haven’t already been thinking Spring since the middle of October, I’m going to be doing a lot of it between now and then…

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