I have just returned from an Alaskan cruise that reached as far north as the Hubbard Glacier. My husband and I joined about 1,700 fellow passengers on a cruise out of Vancouver, Canada, for a week of communing with the wonders of the natural world while stuck on a giant floating mall.
This is how I discovered that in addition to the exceptional beauty of America's 49th state, cruise ship life is not for me. A magical trip to an unspoiled land was marred by the ship's persistent efforts to turn me into a walking credit card. As you embark, the slow-moving security line is made even slower by the herding of passengers in front of a fake glacial backdrop for a picture — that could be purchased later.
Why would anyone want an artificial glacier picture when in a few short days they could stand before a real one for as many shots as their camera could hold? Yet this was far from the end of cheesy picture-taking. Ship personnel costumed as a whale, moose, bear and an eagle so shopworn that it looked to be molting, sidled up to passengers for a photo — that could be purchased later.
Our cabin's mandatory safety drill was conducted in "Fortunes," the ship's massive casino, where passengers were urged to try their luck. But it was off the ship, away from the ship's incessant barkers and a cruise director who spoke only game-show-host-ese, that one felt lucky to be in Alaska.
Except for the excellent daily lectures by naturalist Graham Sunderland — who moved to British Columbia from Britain following the election of Margaret Thatcher because "one of us had to go" — there was a dearth of onboard offerings for passengers who had come to Alaska to see and understand this breathtaking land, its geology, flora, fauna and native peoples.
However, if one wanted Botox shots, acupuncture (for weight loss!), pilates classes, a haircut or to have your age lines filled with Restylane, it was all readily available — for an extra fee.
Every day an itinerary of shipboard events was delivered to the cabin. It showed the day's weather and docking schedule as well as the amount Fortunes' slot machines had paid out so far. A daily insert offered up 10 or so of the day's "featured" activities that were largely contrived events to sell you something or entice you into the ship's many shops.
Getting passengers to buy brown, err, "chocolate" diamonds was an especially big promotion. Each female passenger, as far as I could tell, received a "personal invitation" on their cabin door. Because, as the craggy cliffs of Alaska's mighty coast float by outside, what better place to be than in an interior room looking at pricey mud-colored stones.
Despite the come-ons, there were highly memorable moments, such as the helicopter ride to the Mendenhall Glacier outside Juneau, where our guide helped us into crampons for a hike along the surface and a well-tethered view down its cavernous crevasses.
Here, the impact of climate change is glaringly apparent. Between 2009 and 2010, the glacier retreated 540 feet (836 feet at its center), compared with the 216 feet in average annual loss between 1997 and 2000. The Mendenhall is now losing the equivalent 45,000 Olympic-size swimming pools of water every year. Our guide has watched the melt's acceleration with growing concern. It won't be long before his job disappears along with the ice.
Here is also where the planet shrinks. Alaska's animals and birds know no national boundaries. The humpback whales surrounding an excursion boat we took migrate to the Hawaiian Islands or sometimes Japan in wide seasonal loops. Sooty shearwaters, the seabirds that always seemed to be in my binocular sights, fly annually to New Zealand and back.
These creatures are part of a wondrous natural place. But the cruise ship industry's crass commercialism is cheapening the experience. Like a memento picture before a phony glacier, the encounter with real Alaska is being obscured by the corporate push to sell.