Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Dear Reno: An open letter

Posted in Stuff, Travel on September 25th, 2005

One of what may be a few posts based on our recent short vacation (centered on my 60th birthday), as I recover from work-related events around the same time. I think this one works best as an open letter to the powers that be in Reno, Nevada–”the powers that be” mostly being the owners/operators of the downtown hotel/casinos in this case, not that the city or state couldn’t be involved…

Dear Reno,

We like the Biggest Little City, or at least we used to. We used to drive up two or three times a year, staying in one of the downtown hotels, mixing trips around northwest Nevada with time on the poker slot machines.

The last time was two years ago–and we hadn’t been back because, well, we’re Northern Californians, and we’re getting used to breathing. My wife has asthma, so for her it’s a direct health issue. For me, it’s a matter of long-term health and simply finding constant second-hand smoke unpleasant. Oh, sure, most casinos had “non-smoking sections,” usually a dozen slot machines with a little “non-smoking” sign over them, all of two feet away from the rest of the “smoking” casino, with no doors, filtration, or other help.

We came back in September 2005. We both missed the town. We hoped that some casinos would decide to cater to the vast majority of Californians and have some real non-smoking sections. For example, Harrah’s could easily make one side of its split facility nonsmoking. So could Golden Phoenix. Eldorado has a reasonable-size slot area that has only one door connecting it with the rest of the hotel and casino: Put in positive-pressure ventilation, put up a “nonsmoking” sign, and you’re good. Those are just a couple of examples.

But here’s what we found. Just walking into the Eldorado, to go up the escalators to checkin, my wife started having trouble breathing–the smoke was worse than on our previous visit. We asked about nonsmoking areas. Nope (except, probably, the live poker room: seems like serious poker players really don’t like smoke). Harrah’s? Nope. Golden Phoenix? Not even the pathetic little area it used to have in a former incarnation. Silver Legacy? Well, the air was cleaner than at some others–but only until someone sits two machines away and starts blowing that smoke. They have all the rights; as nonsmokers, our only right was to leave.

That pretty much spoiled the vacation. It didn’t help that the “deluxe” Eldorado room in 2005 didn’t measure up to our memory of a “standard” Eldorado room a few years ago, but that’s just one hotel. (We stayed at a Best Western motel in Sonora after leaving Reno; that room was significantly nicer than the Eldorado room.) It didn’t help that Harrah’s Steak House has apparently completely dropped its dress code (and somehow we remember this steak house as having a view, but it’s in the basement–at least now it is), although the food was still good. It didn’t help that downtown’s become more seedy than we remember. But mostly it didn’t help that my wife could barely breathe in some casinos and felt slightly ill through the whole three days.

I should note one small exception (and we didn’t make it to the Reno Hilton, which might have a true nonsmoking gaming area). Atlantis has a skyway that connects to a parking lot at one end and the hotel/casino at the other. That skyway has maybe three or four dozen slot machines (including a few poker slots) and, lo and behold, is truly non-smoking.

Atlantis can do it. Why can’t the rest of you?

Oh yes, about Sonora: We stopped by one of those Indian casinos that’s causing you so much trouble: Black Oak, in Tuolumne. The odds for poker slots weren’t great (5 for a flush, 8 for a full house)–as good as at Eldorado, but not the full 98%-payback odds at Silver Legacy and some other spots. But there was this big area with loads of glass and a door with a “nonsmoking” sign. 160+ slot machines. A bar. Positive-pressure ventilation. Clean air. What a concept!

We’ve heard there are other Indian casinos with true nonsmoking gaming areas.

We like Reno. Really we do. We’ll never be high rollers, but we come prepared to pay for a good hotel room and good meals, with a modest budget to enjoy poker slots.

Guess where we’re likely to take that budget?

Maybe Reno can continue to cater to the dying breed of smokers, but it seems like an odd long-term strategy.

Sincerely,
Walt Crawford

Cruising ads: Shading the truth

Posted in Travel on August 11th, 2005

We got a slick mailer yesterday from Celebrity Cruises. What I say below isn’t an attack on Celebrity Cruises; while their ships carry many more people than we’re used to, we continue to consider trying them out on a San Francisco/Mexico roundtrip (because it’s so convenient)–and they have a good reputation within their general category.

The mailer itself is a little more questionable.

The first inside page has this line in a pseudo-handwriting typeface: “Best Premium Cruise Line”–Conde Nast Travele Readers’ Choice Awards 2004. That’s an interesting combination of fact and interpretation:

Celebrity ranked third among large-ship cruise lines, substantially behind the top two:
1. Crystal 94.6
2. Radisson Seven Seas 94.0
3. Celebrity 85.8
and that 85.8 would rank it seventh in a ranking that ignores ship size (Radisson, uniquely, has both small and large ships, but not for long)

How can they make the claim? Because of that word “Premium”: Crystal and Radisson Seven Seas, two of our very favorite cruise lines, are classifed as “Luxury” lines. “Premium” is a huge step down; Princess and Holland America are other “Premium” lines.

Technically, they’re misquoting Conde Nast Traveler; realistically, to most new cruisers, they’re at best misleading, since most people probably assume “Premium” is top of the line. It’s not.

I’ll buy “Aspiring to offer the finest shipboard dining in the world”…after all, aspirations are good things.

Yes, Celebrity gets high rankings for food within its category, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that Celebrity’s food is better than Crystal or Radisson Seven Seas or Seabourn or Silversea (or, for that matter, Windstar). Oceania is actually claiming to serve the best food at sea; we haven’t tried them, so we can’t absolutely deny the claim… (There’s a claim that a Cruise Week magazine survey ranked Celebrity #1 for best cuisine; in fact, Cruise Week is a two-page weekly industry newsletter–at $125 a year, we don’t subscribe!–and that means the “survey” is of travel agents. Most travel agents sell mostly mainstream cruises; of the mainstream cruise lines, I don’t doubt Celebrity’s food is best.)

Then the brochure flat-out lies:
“With one staff member to every two guests, Celebrity has the highest staff-to-guest ratio on the sea.”

That’s just wrong, without the unstated qualifier “among cruise lines that we choose to compare ourselves to.” Crystal runs roughly one staff member to every 1.6 guests. Radisson Silver Seas is about the same. So is Windstar. Silversea and Seabourn are even lower, I believe.

The last statement, unqualified as it is, is simply false advertising. Not that Crystal, RSSC, Windstar, Silversea, or Seabourn is likely to sue: They don’t compete directly with Celebrity. (Well, Windstar and Seabourn both compete indirectly, since both are part of Carnival, which also runs the “premium” lines Holland America and Princess.)

As for me: Well, we’re still considering Celebrity, but misleading and false advertising rarely makes me want to run out and buy a product.

The ships keep on coming

Posted in Media, Travel on August 9th, 2005

Daniel Cornwall has posted an interesting set of pictures of cruise ships in Juneau.

He captured the “biggies”–ships from Holland America (such as the Oosterdam) with the blue bottom, Princess, Carnival (all three of those actually being Carnival), and Celebrity (the ships with the big X on the stack, for Chandros, the original owners). Those are all megaships we’re unlikely to be on (though we’re considering Celebrity).

He also caught the Empress of the North (the sternwheeler), which we saw at a couple of ports a few weeks ago (has it only been a few weeks?), a charming little ship almost lost among the monsters, and one of the very small ships that lines such as Glacier Bay run.

He didn’t, as far as I can see, catch a snap of our favorite ship, the Crystal Harmony, which is in the midst of its final Alaska season under the Crystal name; we were on that ship on its first SF-Alaska round trip of this season. He did get what must be the Seven Seas Mariner (the all-white, all-balcony ship), also quite a wonderful ship from the line (Radisson Seven Seas) that’s the closest competitor to Crystal.

The nighttime snaps are stunning.

Generally, Juneau’s a beautiful place–in summer and (from my one experience) in winter. Although it does have a slightly different feel when almost all of the waterfront is shut down!

“Libraries” as a category? Well, Daniel works in a library…

Alaska continued

Posted in Travel on June 15th, 2005

A few more notes on our cruise…

The passengers:

Typical Crystal, by and large: Affluent, well-educated, interesting, with relatively few yahoos and just enough smokers to annoy the breathers (not in dining rooms or the showroom, certainly, but elsewhere).

The ship wasn’t full–the first in the Alaska series usually isn’t–and had some 700-odd people (out of 940 capacity, with 535 crew). The way the captain summarized it at his welcome party: people from 14 other countries, including 12 from Canada, 21 from the UK, 8(?) from Japan–I think it added up to around 100 overall. Then: “240 from the United States, and 350 from California.”

While Californians have been well-represented on every cruise we’ve taken (typically anywhere from 20 to 30%, which makes sense since most of these cruises are marketed only in the U.S. and Canada, California makes up around 18% of the U.S. population, and people in coastal states typically cruise and travel abroad more than people in the interior, this is the first time it’s been half the ship. But sailing out of SF, it really was convenient; I’d guess 100 of the 350 might have been from the Bay Area, maybe more. Beyond that, there were 36 from Texas, 33 Florida, 21 Arizona, 21 Hawaii (one group of food & wine aficionados traveling together), 15 New Jersey, 14 Illinois, 13 Colorado, 10 Nevada, 8 Massachusetts, 7 each Michigan and New York, 6 each Indiana and Tennessee, and 55 from the 38 other states & DC. That breakdown is also unusual–more typically (and maybe not true of Alaska cruises), Florida, New York, and Texas would be 2nd-4th in that order.

The greatest elements:

Alaska first and foremost: The grandeur, the beauty, the wildlife, the people.

Tracy Arm (already noted) was new to us and spectacular. The Misty Fjords were new to us and somewhat less spectacular; maybe the weather was too good for proper enjoyment. Glacier Bay was definitely not new to us but always worthwhile.

Allen Marine tours–a tip for people who love aquatic wildlife and plan Alaska trips. Allen Marine builds its own waterjet catamarans in its Sitka shipyard and runs its own tours, always with a naturalist aboard, always (in our experience) comfortable, well-equipped (with binoculars and route maps, good marine heads and galleys with free beverages and snacks), designed for great viewing, and run to get the most out of the two to four hour tour. You won’t see Allen Marine listed in a shore-excursion book. Look for “Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest” or “Mendenhall Glacier & Wildlife Quest” in Juneau, “Ketchikan Explorer by Land & Sea” or “Misty Fjords & Wildlife Quest” in Ketchikan, “Sea Otter & Wildlife Quest” or a couple of others (with “wildlife quest” in the name, generally) in Sitka. (A bunch of Allen Marine boats are in use as passenger ferries in New York, and the Tlingit-owned ferry we took from Skagway to Haines was actually an Allen Marine boat…)

The food, to be sure–and the wine, including the new “C” vintages (prepared exclusively for Crystal). The “C” Chardonnay was a good moderately-priced California Chardonnay–but the C Reserve, a central coast wine, was superb and a bargain as a shipboard restaurant wine ($8.50/glass, $34/bottle).

Some of the production shows: One with the music of Irving Berlin, one Rodgers & Hammerstein, one “Rock Around the Clock.” A cast of eight remarkably talented singers and dancers augmented by two leads (in all, five men, five women); the male lead had enormous vocal range and depth, and they were all first-rate.

Enough for now. We’ll get pictures back in a couple of days; those might inspire more comments. (Great as the vacation was, work’s been hectic enough to drive much of it out of my mind–and may explain why “regular blogging,” whatever that might mean, won’t return for a while yet.)

In the meantime, by now you should know the bottom line: While it may be true that we’re loving Southeast Alaska to death, it’s also true that Southeast Alaska is the essential cruise for anyone who cares about spectacular scenery and wildlife. There’s really no other good way to see the area. Whether on a small expedition-type ship (which my brother’s doing next month, along with one of his daughters and granddaughters), the Empress of the North (a 235-passenger sternwheeler, the only ocean-going sternwheeler), a medium-size luxury ship (the Crystal Harmony or a Seven Seas competitor), or even–maybe–one of the megaships, it’s worth doing at least once.

Back, sort of

Posted in Stuff, Travel on June 13th, 2005

Why would someone automatically suppose that a comment about infrequent/erratic posting and moderating for 10-12 days means a vacation? It could mean a speaking trip, planned surgery, illness, family commitments, computer problems, any number of things.

More to the point, why would someone make such a weblog entry with no referent, no significance, no reason whatsoever? I’m not quite paranoid enough to believe that this particular blogger (I’m not about to provide a link, as the last thing I want is to provide this jerk with added readership) was pointing out that our house might be open to robbery during that period (which, fortunately, was not the case), but otherwise…well, why on earth would you blog that someone who you don’t know and who has never said so is going on an “extended vacation”?

Grumble.

As it happens…well, the series of cruise entries may be a tipoff. All of those entries were composed on or before May 30, postdated, but in a typical one-pass “zeroth draft” mode. We were on our final Crystal Harmony cruise to Alaska, a 12-night round trip out of San Francisco. Final only because the Crystal Harmony disappears in December, taken over by Crystal Cruises’ parent, NYK Shipping, for luxury Japanese cruising under a different name. It’s the third time we’ve done this cruise, the second time we’ve taken the first in the summer series, despite the possibility of inferior weather at the beginning of the season.

I’m not going to write about the whole trip for the moment (too tired–and after today at work, really too tired). I will note that poor weather turned out to be a problem only in one minor sense: When the skies are as clear and sunny as they were in every single port–blue skies in Ketchikan!–you see a lot less wildlife on the wildlife-watching excursions we took. Eagles and others tend to stay in the shade, coming out more on overcast days. So we only saw maybe two or three dozen eagles, maybe 15-20 humpbacks, maybe 20-30 orcas (“killer whales”), possibly two dozen sea otters, a dozen or so sea lions, and three mooses. The mooses were new to us. Otherwise, it’s fair to say that, spectacular as bald eagles always are in flight (and even as “golf balls in trees,” the standard spotting suggestion), this year was nothing compared to the hundreds we encountered two years ago.

Short version: Wonderful cruise. Rain only in Glacier Bay. Tracy Arm, new to us, was spectacular–and our captain, unlike another “big ship” captain, wasn’t about to let some floating ice (lots of floating ice) keep the ship out of the 22-mile fjord. Glorious weather in Skagway (and Haines, where we spent most of that day), Sitka, Juneau–and, to repeat, blue skies in Ketchikan. People who know Alaska will know how odd that is. (The Misty Fjords weren’t misty when we were there…)

Intermittent posting as I catch up with everything–and, of course, there’s ALA in another 11 days. Where I’ll be sans technology as usual.

Notes about cruising 6: Windstar

Posted in Travel on June 10th, 2005

I’ll try to keep this one short–after all, these ships are small. The three originals (the Wind Song, Wind Star, and Wind Spirit) hold 148 passengers in 74 cabins–73 of them identical (plus one “owner’s suite). The Wind Song was put out of commission by a fire.

WindStar picked up the Club Med II (a much larger, coarser version of the WindStar idea built after WindStar’s ships), renamed it the Wind Surf, and converted one deck’s worth of 188sqft. cabins into 376sq.ft. suites by removing interior walls. (As a result, they’re the only small suites I’ve ever heard of with two full bathrooms!) That ship still carries 308 passengers, more than twice as many as the “real” WindStar ships; it has more public spaces, but it’s not as classic.

How classic? WindStar ships are “wind cruisers.” They have regular engines–but they also have masts. When the wind reaches 10 knots, the captain pushes a button and little motors unfurl glorious sails from the (turning) masts. The ships run faster under sail than under engines, and when conditions are right the only running engine is the one required for electricity and the like, resulting in glorious quiet. There’s no sailing crew, but these are sailing ships.

We haven’t been on the Wind Surf, so can’t comment. The others are first-rate at what they do. The cabins are extremely well designed and comfortable, but there are no verandahs (and you get big portholes, not windows). There aren’t a lot of public spaces, there’s no neon or glitz, and they don’t schedule boatloads of Events to keep you busy.

What they do is sail into interesting ports with a small group of interesting people, serve restaurant-quality food in a restaurant-like setting (open seating, and although there’s a limited menu all food is cooked to order), offer some low-key local entertainment when appropriate in the single lounge/meeting space/bar, and maintain a great casual gathering spot on the open top deck, with a modest pool, a pool bar, and interesting snacks or special cooking demonstrations some afternoons. There’s actually a second restaurant where breakfast and (usually) lunch is served, a combination of buffet and menu items. WindStar gets local fish and produce whenever that’s possible, and if you go out fishing they’re only too happy to cook the results.

Oh, your room has a TV and either DVD player or VCR; the reception desk checks out movies. There’s a tiny so-called casino (two tables and four or five slot machines). There’s music and dancing at times. And, whenever the ship’s anchored in calm waters, there’s a water-sports platform opening directly from the stern, with all water sports except scuba free (snorkeling–they have equipment; ocean kayaks; windsurf boards; and more).

Not a cruise line for those who need to be Entertained. Not a cruise line for those who love formal dress: The dress code at dinner is always “resort casual,” which means nice shirts or equivalent but certainly not ties or formalwear. Also not for those who get seasick easily: small ships running under sail are going to sway a lot more than big cruiseliners with stabilizers. (On one cruise, there were evenings when we joked that anyone walking upright through the dining room had had way too much to drink!

Great destinations; well-planned shore excursions; interesting people; and you set your own pace. We love it. Others might not. It’s not cheap, and, yes, it is technically part of Holland America, which in turn means it’s owned by Carnival. Although we weren’t crazy about Holland America and are unlikely to cruise on Carnival, WindStar suits us fine.

Notes about cruising 5: Crystal

Posted in Travel on June 8th, 2005

Why is Crystal Cruises our favorite cruise line–and why are we willing to pay the high prices? (For the price of a modest cabin on Crystal, you can probably get a suite on Carnival or NCL or Royal Caribbean.)

One reason is that Crystal, like several other luxury cruise lines, is destination-oriented. They don’t go back and forth, back and forth on endless 7-night Caribbean cruises. Indeed, other than their 12-night Alaska round-trips from San Francisco (which end this year after a wonderful decade) and some European 12-night cruise series, they don’t have particularly repetitive cruises. For that matter, even with Alaska, each cruise is a little different–enough so that the cruise atlas includes a map for each cruise.

We’re generally destination-oriented cruisers. We’re not shoppers; the most popular Caribbean destinations don’t interest us much (we’ve seen some of them, and there are some we’d like to visit eventually, but…); while we enjoy cruising, we’re mostly “cruising to see the world.” That’s where lines like Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas, WindStar, and some others that we haven’t yet tried come in.

For example, this year, Crystal’s trio of ships (which becomes a duo at the end of the year, sadly) has visited or will visit 168 ports in 79 countries. Every year, Crystal visits new destinations–for example, this year the line makes its maiden calls at Porto Venere (Italy), Seno Eyre Fjord (Chile), Alesund (Norway), Belfast, Oban (Scotland), Monemvasia and Samos (both Greece), Nesebur (Bulgaria), Progreso, Loreto, Santa Rosalita, and La Paz (all Mexico), Turks & Caicos, and Roatan Island. That’s in one year, for three ships.

Crystal also finds or designs first-rate and varied shore excursions, and makes sure the guides and equipment are the best available. Typically, they won’t fill a tour bus more than 2/3 full, and we’ve been on an Alaska wildlife-watching catamaran designed for 150 people with 35 Crystal passengers: Crystal chartered the catamaran, and certainly wasn’t going to cancel the excursion for low turnout.

They also do everything right on board. The cabins are well-designed (although the Crystal Harmony’s bathrooms are small), with loads of nice touches. The public spaces are varied and superb: Even with a full load of 940 passengers, we frequently feel like we’re the only ones on board because there are so many different places people congregate. The ships have true promenade decks: 12′ wide teak decking all the way around the ship (unusual for recently-built ships), and with no deck chairs to block walkers. (There are plenty of deck chairs, but up on the Lido deck where the pools are, and back in various aft open spaces on several decks.)

The food–ah, the food. Crystal is regularly rated as having the best food (and the best service) in the cruise industry, even beating out much more expensive lines. They produce varied menus, they invite you to mix-and-match vegetables, starches, and entrees in your main plate (some lines can’t handle those changes), and they let you know that they’ll prepare almost anything you want (within reason) on 24-hours notice. They also have specialty restaurants considered first-rate, a pool grill that serves great burgers (regular, turkey, veggie) and the like all afternoon, free ship-made ice cream, yogurt, and cookies all afternoon (also by one of the pools), a Lido buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch (and casual poolside dining some evenings), and an extensive room service menu…

About the service: Crystal’s people aren’t obsequious, in your face, or anything like that. They just do a great job. It’s clear that Crystal treats its crews well (the dedicated crew pool and lounging area has the best views on the ship; crews are two to a cabin; the line goes out of its way to encourage married and other couples…) and it shows: You feel as though you’re part of a very large and happy family. The crew:passenger ratio is also very high, as you’d expect on a luxury line: about 1.6:1 (passengers to crew) if the ship’s full.

Crystal pretty consistently rates highest of large-ship cruise lines, but “large ship” is tricky. Yes, these are big ships–but they’re extremely spacious. The smallest ship, the soon-to-depart Crystal Harmony, is 49,000 GRT (gross register tons, a measure of space, not weight: a GRT is “100 cubic feet of enclosed revenue-earning space” according to the Unofficial Guide to Cruises, holding a maximum of 940 passengers. By comparison, Royal Caribbean’s Nordic Empress is almost the same size (48,563 GRT)–but it holds 1602 passengers. (The newest and largest Crystal ship, the Crystal Serenity, holds 1,080 passengers–but it’s also 68,000 GRT, so there’s a lot more space per passenger than on the Crystal Harmony or Crystal Symphony.)

We don’t ever feel crowded or herded on Crystal. We also don’t ever feel that they’re trying to nickel-and-dime us or shill for more money. Crystal treats passengers as adults: Other than one captain’s announcement at 9 a.m. each morning, there are no loudspeaker announcements under normal circumstances. There’s an extensive ship’s newspaper with a full schedule, there are lots of clocks on board, and they assume that adults can be where they need to be when they need to be there. (Similarly, for shore excursions, where one slightly-larger and much-cheaper line we tried had what we believe to be a standard ritual: Go one place, get little colored tags put on your shirts, go wait somewhere else, then line up again to go to your excursions–Crystal, whenever they’re docking, says “Meet your group on the pier by this time,” and that’s it.

As for nickel-and-diming, three years ago Crystal dropped all charges for nonalcoholic beverages; when you’re going ashore, there are usually big trays of bottled water so you’ll remember to take one or more with you–at no charge. The Bistro, a wonderful on-board space with a wine bar, teas and specialty coffees (with or without liquor), and light food most of the day, doesn’t charge for specialty coffees unless you add booze. Yes, you do pay for booze–but Crystal’s wine list is first-rate (and they now have their own vintages, “C” wines, produced for them by an experienced California winery) and fairly priced.

Let’s see: What else to mention. Yes, they have evening shows–magnificent ones. They have first-rate lecturers. The libraries are large and well-stocked. There are lots of things to do, and no pressure to do any of them. Each ship has a Caesar’s Palace at Sea–the casino staff all come from the Caesar’s/Harrah’s group of casinos. (But the free drinks come from the hotel staff, so if you ask for a glass of Chardonnay, you’ll get restaurant-quality Chardonnay, not warm white “chablis”) The rooms all have sitting areas, and most have verandas.

They treat repeat passengers well. In addition to the special Crystal Society gathering on each cruise, you get a special repeat-passenger discount on most cruises, shipboard credits that grow as you cruise more, and on each five-cruise milestone some special discount (e.g., our next milestone will be a guaranteed two-category upgrade). And they have loyal passengers–because they do a great job.

Not well-suited for boozehounds and partiers; Crystal draws a somewhat older and generally well-educated crowd, and tends to be reasonably sedate at night. They do have children’s areas and put counselors on board whenever there are a given number of kids, but they’re certainly not Disney Cruises. They have extensive computer labs (and free training).

Mostly, they treat you well; they feed you very well (quality, not quantity, although you certainly will never go hungry!); they go interesting places and offer lots of interesting things to see; they educate you on board if that’s what you want (and leave you alone if that’s what you want); and they seem to have every detail down pat.

Downsides (for some people): Crystal is expensive (but one of the two most reasonably-priced luxury lines). They do have traditional two-seating/assigned-table dinners (and we’ve always enjoyed our dinner companions). They do expect you to dress formally on formal evenings.

Oh, and if you hate all big business, they’re owned by NYK, Japan’s largest (and maybe the world’s largest) freight shipping company. But if you hate big business, there are very few cruise lines you can try–particularly when 12 lines are owned by Carnival.

We’ve gone through the Panama Canal on Crystal. We’ve seen New Zealand and Australia; Venice and surrounding areas; the coast of Scotland and the fjords of Norway; and Alaska, more than once. We hope to see even more of the world on Crystal (as always, “as time, money and health permit”).

Notes about cruising 4: Delta Queen

Posted in Travel on June 6th, 2005

Let’s talk about riverboat cruising–more specifically, Delta Queen Steamboat Company, cruising on America’s heartland rivers. (There are quite a few other river cruises–as many as four boats and ships cruise the Columbia River, and dozens of ships and barges cruise European waterways, not to mention the Yangtze. But we’ve never taken any of those, so…)

Delta Queen operates three riverboats. They’re boats, not ships: They’re not built for the open ocean. Very shallow draft (no more than 9 feet, because that’s as deep as the Army Corps of Engineers keeps the upper Mississippi). Dimensions small enough to fit into river locks and under bridges. The largest, the American Queen, is 418 feet long, 89.4 feet wide, and rises 97 feet above the riverline–but the stacks and pilothouse can be lowered to clear bridges. (If I remember properly, the stacks pivot–just like the old riverboats.)

These are authentic steam-driven sternwheelers. When the American Queen was built (we were on one of the inaugural voyages, in mid-1995, and have the working replica boat’s bell to prove it–and, for that matter, our names are engraved on or in the boat’s bell, probably in teeny-tiny type), the most daunting task for the builders was finding a steam engine the right size to drive the boat. After all, nobody builds those any more. (With the help of the Army Corps, they located a sunken dredge and salvaged the engine–actually two of them, from the Kennedy.) And that big red paddlewheel is not only for show. On the Delta Queen, it’s the only propulsion, and on the Mississippi Queen and American Queen, it’s the primary propulsion system. The sternwheelers were never the fastest steamboats, just the most graceful; the Queens typically run at about six to eight mph (not knots, since they’re on rivers).

The Delta Queen itself (herself?) is truly authentic, which is both good and bad. DQ was built in 1926 and originally ran in the Sacramento delta, between Sacramento and San Francisco, along with sister ship Delta King. (My mother-in-law used the Delta Queen as transportation, back in the day…) After WWII, the Delta King became what it is now–a floating hotel and restaurant in Old Sacramento. The Delta Queen was towed all the way to Louisiana, refurbished, and started a new career as a river cruise boat. (Not without hassles: The superstructure is wood, which means it can’t fully meet Safety of Life at Sea, SOLAS, regulations. It required an act of Congress to keep it running, and you sign a waiver before you board this National Historic Landmark.) It’s also small–87 cabins on four decks (no elevators), with cabins ranging from 44 to 68 square feet, except for a few high-end 136-156 sq. ft. cabins. (No typos: A typical midrange DQ cabin is just big enough for two very narrow beds, a milk carton-size table, a three-drawer dresser, the 16″ hanging rod that substitutes for a closet unless you book the highest suite category, one chair and a sink; that 44sqft. doesn’t include the bathroom.) You really don’t spend any more time in your cabin than you need to–but all the decks are promenade decks, with rocking chairs all around. You meet everyone on board the first day, and it’s just small-town Americana from then on.

Yes, the cabins are tiny; no, we don’t recommend the DQ unless you understand that and can live with it. Public spaces include an open entry area/lounge/library, the Texas Lounge for piano bar, singalongs, drinks, and watching the sun set, and the Orleans Dining Room–which serves as the restaurant and showroom (after the second seating, they rearrange tables). Two seatings for dinner, not because there aren’t enough tables but because the galley’s so tiny that it can’t prepare that many meals at once.

As with all three Queens, it’s a little hokey, a lot traditional heartland Americana, and a great way to explore the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, and Arkansas rivers. Each Queen has a “Riverlorian” to keep you in touch with the rivers and what they’re all about. Interesting stops. Good food, with a range of choices (more on the larger Queens) including a fair amount of “river food.” Moderately dressy for dinner. Most people on the DQ, in our experience, are in their 70s and 80s and just love the boat.

Differences with the other two:

  • The Mississippi Queen, built in 1976, holds 416 passengers in considerably more comfort, with cabins ranging from 123 square feet up, including a fair number with private verandas. In addition to the dining room, there’s the two-level Paddlewheel Lounge (which overlooks…well, you guessed it) and Grand Saloon (showroom); there’s also an open-air Calliope Bar. (Did I mention that each Queen has an authentic steam-driven calliope? When they go through locks and under bridges, you frequently get calliope concerts.) There are elevators. There’s even a little bathing pool.
  • The American Queen, built in 1995, holds 436 passengers. Typical cabins range from 141 to 190 square feet; some have verandas. The J.M. White Dining Room is a recreation of one of the most splendid steamboat dining saloons; the Grand Saloon is a true showroom, with two levels and all the facilities; and there are a couple of good bars–plus the Front Porch of America, an inauthentic but wonderful view lounge with fresh-baked cookies showing up all day. Elevators, to be sure.

Our reminiscences are from the old DQSC, part of the same holding company that ran American Hawaii–and got too ambitious with a building program. The three boats are now operated under the same company name by new ownership; my understanding is that everything’s pretty much the same.

Our favorite cruise was St. Louis to St. Paul (or vice-versa), seven days on the always-changing Upper Mississippi. But we also loved a civil war cruise, mostly on the Tennessee and Ohio, with a team of historians along.

Downsides: These cruises are expensive–inherently so, since they’re small boats and American registry (which means the crew has to be paid living wages). Most passengers are, shall we say, older than we are. It is indeed a little hokey at times. And, on the DQ, those cabins are small.

Upsides: You get into the American heartland. River cruising is incredibly relaxing. We learned a lot about the rivers and the land around them (and the people, of course). And if you get seasick on a river cruise, it’s really all in your mind.

Notes on cruising, 3

Posted in Travel on June 4th, 2005

Some personal notes on some “cruise topics”–some of the things you may have heard about cruising. Notes are based on our experiences, which include cruises on American Hawaii (defunct), Regency (defunct), Renaissance (defunct), Crown (defunct), and–lest you get too much of a pattern here–Crystal (our favorite line), Radisson Seven Seas, Windstar (these two probably tie for almost-favorites), Delta Queen Steamboat Company, and Holland America. In one or two cases I may include what I’ve read if it’s consistent. I’ll use an FAQ format, because that’s always fun.

What’s with the tuxedo evenings?

Traditionally, most 7-day and longer cruises include two formal evenings, which used to mean tux or dinner jacket for men, evening gown or similar for women. The first one’s almost always the day after you board, when there’s usually a Captain’s Party to welcome you aboard. The second one’s typically either the next-to-last night (never the last night, because people start packing early) or the last day at sea if it’s not the last night. On better lines, that formal night might feature the Captain’s Farewell Party. (On both occasions, if the ship’s not too big, you get portraits taken with the captain–but you’re never obliged to buy them.) Longer cruises may have more: Crystal cruises typically feature three formal nights (and usually run 10 to 14 days or longer). (“Secret”: The middle formal night on Crystal is the Crystal Society party, for repeat cruisers, which may be 50% to 80% of the ship.)

If this all sounds awful to you, don’t worry too much. Most mainstream lines don’t seem to care much about dress codes any more (although you’re expected not to wear t-shirts or shorts, or to go barefoot, in the dining room at dinner). Of the lines we’ve sailed, I always found that a sport coat was good enough on Regency and American Hawaii and Delta Queen (you see very few tuxes on Delta Queen!). Windstar never has formal nights (“resort casual” is the constant dress “code,” which for me means tropical shirts), and ships cruising in the South Seas (where we took Renaissance) almost never have formal nights.

When we took our first Crystal cruise, we knew from reputation that they meant formal. I’d never worn a tux. Turns out that a properly-fitting tux is fun to wear, particularly if (like me) you don’t normally wear a coat & tie at work: It’s a harmless form of dress-up, and most of the people look great on formal nights. I’d guess that 90% of Crystal passengers really do dress up on formal nights, and probably 80% of Radisson Seven Seas (RSS) passengers; Holland America was much more hit-and-miss.

By the way, there are two other typical dress codes: “Informal” and “Casual.” “Informal” used to mean coat & tie for men, dress or pantsuit for women; on Crystal and RSS, at least, the coat remains but the tie’s optional. “Casual”–always the first night, always the last night, and a fair number of other nights–is decently dressed but not dress-up. Of course, some men will wear a coat & tie every night, and some women will dress to the teeth every night. But not many.

What about dining all the time with people you don’t know, and at the same time every evening?

On our first two or three cruises, we tended to ask for two-person tables at dinner, and usually got them. We frequently shared tables at lunch, and finally concluded that we were missing a bet by not sharing a dinner table. We now ask for a six-up (always at the early seating–we don’t like to eat late) on those ships with traditional two-seating/assigned-table operations. (Crystal falls into this category; so does Delta Queen, I think, and so did Regency. So does Holland America.) We’ve had interesting and frequently delightful dinner companions on every Crystal cruise and on most Delta Queen cruises. We’ve had mixed luck on the two Holland America cruises: On one cruise, we considered asking for a table change (but didn’t), and on the second we did ask for (and get) a new table because we couldn’t see dining with one of the people for 10 nights. Generally, though, we’ve enjoyed getting to know people over the course of a cruise. The six-person table allows for more diverse interaction, while eight-person tables are hard to talk across.

We like the two-seating/assigned-table format on a line like Crystal, where the nature of the line and its pricing seems to offer a high probability that dinner companions will be reasonably well educated and not complete idiots. (Not a certainty, but a high probability.) But here too, times are changing. Most mainline cruise lines offer some variation on open seating in at least some dining rooms; some have loads of restaurant choices (some of them at extra fees). [Crystal ships have at least two first-rate alternative restaurants, by reservation, in addition to the usual Lido/buffet breakfast/lunch alternative that almost all but the very smallest cruise ships offer.] Some lines such as Windstar and Radisson Seven Seas, maintain open seating in the primary restaurant and may offer reservations in alternative restaurants (although two of Windstar’s ships don’t have alternatives, just as Delta Queen’s boats generally don’t). On those ships, we generally walk in and ask for a “shared table,” and we’ve generally found that good too (of course, if you make fast friends on board, you can get together and go in as a group).

Breakfast and lunch are rarely assigned seating. It’s rare to share a table at breakfast; lunch is almost always your choice (and we usually do if we’re not in a hurry). Lots of people seem to prefer the buffet restaurant for breakfast and lunch; we tend to prefer the dining room unless we’re in a hurry. In a buffet restaurant, you’re unlikely to share a table unless the tables all fill up or unless you spot someone you know and suggest it.

And, if you get sick of people, there’s always room service (on most ships)–and on the better ships, you can order anything from the dining room menu as room service during dinner, sometimes served course-by-course. Some folks always have breakfast on their verandas. (Not us…)

Again, it’s a case of your preferences. Two of our three favorite lines don’t have traditional seating and times; our very favorite one does. It doesn’t hurt that all three serve restaurant-quality food and attract interesting people.

What about those grotesque midnight buffets and all the absurd overeating?

More than anything else, this cliche about cruising depends on the line. Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas, and Windstar don’t do midnight buffets at all, although the first two might pass snacks around in the various bars and lounges as the midnight hour nears. (Crystal has finessed the traditional “Grand Buffet” with its food art by doing it as a lunch–and in their case the food is not only gloriously worth appreciating for the carving and other artistry, it’s also worth eating.) Holland America does evening buffets, but I don’t think they’re actually at midnight, and much as I like chocolate, I found the whole idea of the “Chocoholic Buffet” a little much. Regency did have midnight buffets, but we never went, so I have no comment. (I think the same was true of Crown and American Hawaii, but not Renaissance.)

As for absurd overeating–well, if you’re a pig, any cruise line I know of will keep bringing you food as long as you ask for it, and the buffets are of course eat-all-you-want. But nobody forces you to take double or triple portions, and good cruise lines are learning to make the portions more reasonable. (We still have trouble getting modest servings of entrees, but less trouble than we used to have.) You will get varied food on good cruise lines, with Crystal at the top of the heap. (On one Crystal cruise, when the maitre d’ seated us the first night, he announced to the table that they were very proud of their menus, but considered the menu to be a starting point: If there was anything else you wanted that they could prepare, they’d try to do it on one day’s notice. He wasn’t kidding; the headwaiters love preparing tableside specialties and flaming desserts, and they really will try to accommodate you. Most other cruise lines are nowhere near as accommodating; we were stunned when Holland America’s waiters were unwilling or unable to make starch or vegetable substitutions from within that night’s menu: The combination on the menu was the only one you could get. Windstar and Seven Seas are highly accommodating, if not quite so much as Crystal.)

Pigs will be pigs. The better cruise lines don’t go out of their way to encourage it. Yes, there are at least four or five “dining opportunities” per day and, usually, 24-hour room service (free, and frequently with fairly extensive menus). But it’s not difficult to eat as much as you want and no more.

One higlight for us, on both Radisson Seven Seas and Crystal: Afternoon teas, with lots of tea choices and the appetizers you’d expect–on Crystal, sometimes served fairly elaborately, including the Mozart Tea with waiters in costumes.

What about free wine on some cruises?

Radisson Seven Seas pours wine free with dinners (and, on the Paul Gauguin in French Polynesia, lunch as well). So does Seabourn and Silversea–and I think at least one of those lines has an “open bar” policy where all alcohol is free. Windstar’s experimenting with “inclusive” cruises that include wine and beer with dinner. (RSS also stocks your fridge with complimentary beer, soda and two bottles of your preferred booze, which for us means wine.)

The good news is that the wine isn’t rotgut; it’s been quite good on Radisson Seven Seas, at least when we learned that you can ask for any alternative from that cruise’s list.

The bad news is that the wine is poured freely–and without your asking. When people don’t pay attention, they wind up drinking a lot more wine than they’d planned. Nobody gets stupid drunk, but I think that’s one reason Radisson Seven Seas cruises have very little high-energy night life: Too many people are about half gone. We’ve learned to keep an eye on the glass…and, in some ways, we’d just as soon order wine explicitly and pay for it.

That’s enough for now. Shore excursions? We use them, but adventurous folks may save money by rolling their own. Tipping? Varies by line, included some times, mostly done as part of your incidentals bill these days, no big deal (but it’s a lot of money–and has to be, because that’s how most staff make most of their living other than on American-registry ships).

Notes about cruising, 2

Posted in Travel on June 2nd, 2005

Before going into specifics on some of the ships (and boats–there is a difference) we’ve been on, and the cruises we’ve loved, and specific notes and cautions, some general bullet points on the benefits and drawbacks of cruising. (Imagine the point sliding one by one onto PowerPoint slides with fireworks and dramatic music, if it makes you happy. Those of you who’ve ever seen me speak know just how likely that scenario is…)

Cruising advantages:

  • Check in once, unpack once, visit many different places, then pack once and check out once.
  • Leave the driving to them–but you’re not stuck in your seat on a bus or plane.
  • You know where you’ll be staying in each new destination.
  • You know where you’ll be dining, at least when you don’t have other plans.
  • You travel while you’re sleeping (at least in part), with no jet lag or travel fatigue in most cases.
  • With rare exceptions, you have ready access to entertainment (live shows, TV, movies), a library, room service, exercise equipment, one or more pools, and places to walk with great views.
  • You know most of your costs up front (but not all).
  • You’ll probably get lots of advice about the places you’re going, and can generally sign up for guided tours and excursions, but you can also strike out on your own.

Cruising disadvantages, at least for some people:

  • That up-front cost may shock you.
  • If you want to stay a day longer at a location, you’re out of luck.
  • If you don’t like your room, you may be out of luck (or maybe not).
  • If you don’t like the food, you’re probably out of luck (except when you’re in port and willing to spend more).
  • If you don’t like the gestalt of the ship or the people, you’re out of luck.
  • If you’re prone to seasickness, some cruises may not be for you.

What does that cruise fare cover?

  • Always: Your room; all meals in the main (and usually Lido/buffet) restaurants including at least some nonalcoholic beverages during meals, plus various snacks and the like; the ship or boat as transportation; access to all public areas; use of regular exercise equipment, pools, the library; most (usually all) onboard shows and other entertainment.
  • Usually: Coffee and tea at all hours; 24-hour room service.
  • Frequently: All nonalcoholic beverages (on a growing number of ships including almost all luxury-class ships); most or all alternative restaurants (with possible small suggested tips); some limited number of shore events (picnics, special excursions).
  • Sometimes/rarely: Gratuities (mostly on a few luxury lines); wine and beer at dinner, sometimes also at lunch (ditto); standard shore excursions (on some riverboats and specialized small cruise ships); all alcoholic beverages (two small-ship luxury lines); air transportation (usually as part of special promotional fares).
  • Never or almost never: Spa services; casino gambling (when there is a casino); dry cleaning and laundry (except in some suite categories on some ships); medical services (except, typically free aspirin and Bonamine or other seasickness pills).

Beyond that, and the fact that you’re typically sleeping and traveling above water, there’s so much variety among cruise lines that it’s difficult to make any sweeping statements. I will suggest that the cheapest cruises are also the least interesting after you’ve done one or two, unless you really love the Caribbean and get along great with two or three thousand other people in a floating village.

Some cruise lines and cruises are great for families with children. Some are terrible. Unfortunately, no cruise line bans smoking entirely–one tried and gave up (and went bankrupt for other reasons), one ship on another line did it for a while but then gave up. These days, you’ll almost never find smoking allowed in any dining area or in the main show lounge (assuming there is one); otherwise, you’re likely to encounter it.

We’ve found cruising a great way to see th world and to learn more about America’s heartland. We’ve also found that the mainline ships probably don’t agree with us, based on limited experiments. That’s our problem; you may find that you get along with them just fine.

In future episodes, I’ll get down to the ships (and boats) and cruises we’ve known and loved; most of them are still around.

By the way, if you’re thinking about cruising, a good book wouldn’t hurt. There are several, some of which you may find at (ta-da) Your Local Library. Currently, the one we buy is The Unofficial Guide to Cruises (John Wiley & Sons).


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