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An underwhelming start to an Alaskan cruise

I am being branded. In a windowless town hall in Juneau, they are handing out name tag lanyards at the start of our southeast Alaskan ‘UnCruise’ cruise.


‘Yup,’ I say, rising from my seat, but I am beaten to the lanyard by someone else claiming my name.

‘That’s the English spelling,’ I say confidently, ‘so it must be mine.’

But, uncannily, twice in two days I have found an American who has stolen my name (and lanyard), and this time he has even spelled it correctly.

‘It looks like we have two Geoffs,’ concludes Matt, our expedition organiser, who has the biceps of a baboon and the charisma of a clam.

‘In which case I shall be known as Geoff One,’ I joke.

‘We were rootin’ for ya, Geoff,’ says my neighbour as I return to my seat lanyard-less; he is a craggy, muscular, reptilian San Diego passenger called Larry (I know this because he already has his lanyard), whom I like immediately from his impish smile and the fact he used the word ‘rootin’’. His glamorous Japanese/Hawaiian wife (her father must have stayed over after bombing Pearl Harbor), Susu, giggles beside him; I like her as well.

Steve the sabbatical planner has taken advantage of me again. I have never done a cruise for two reasons: I don’t like boats, and I don’t like people who like boats. A number of my partners enjoy sailing and tying pastel jumpers around their necks at our annual partners’ conference. To me, cruise ships represent organised geriatrics and Las Vegas artifice. Steve had assured me that UnCruise would be different, aimed at nimbler, funkier, more adventurous people who want to participate in the Alaskan wildlife rather than observe it from a bingo hall. Their smaller ships are more manoeuvrable and offer the opportunity to get up close and personal with the glaciers, whales and bears: ours is to be an unglamorous 160-foot vessel called the Wilderness Adventurer. I had signed up during a hurried meeting with Steve back in January, and it currently feels as adventurous as lawn bowling.

Looking around the orientation room, I am feeling a misrepresentation claim coming on against Steve. Larry may be muscular but his muscles are twenty years older than mine and he is one of the younger-looking retirees. There are only two other couples younger than Jackie and me. Also seated at our table are an unlikely older couple from North Carolina, who don’t seem to like each other very much: a placid, pliable, roly-poly squeezable stress-ball called Bob who is a dead-ringer for Radar from the 1970s/1980s television show M*A*S*H, and a difficult, high-maintenance lady called Pam, a dead-ringer for a paranoid psychologist in need of some self-diagnosis.

I am quickly learning that when participating in a cruise, you need to exercise great caution and judgement when choosing your seat at the orientation meeting, because the people you first meet and speak to will immediately shape-shift into barnacles and will thereafter be impossible to shake off. Bob and Pam are hardened cruisers (and, I suspect, swingers): Bob is looking for some naïve first-timers to ofload Pam onto for the week; Pam is looking for a daughter or a pet to adopt. Jackie appears to tick both boxes.

There is not much to do in Juneau, other than to board your ship. It has a population of only thirty thousand, or the equivalent of Middlesbrough FC’s packed Riverside Stadium when they are playing a decent team. (At this point, I enjoy a certain smugness in bringing up Middlesbrough in the Alaska chapter).  James Cook navigated and mapped part of Alaska in 1778, and came from Middlesbrough (nearly). Coming from a tropical climate such as Middlesbrough, he found the Alaskan winter a bit too chilly so he then headed to the Hawaiian islands to remind himself of home, but like home the natives were none too friendly and ate him.) There are as many bald eagles in Alaska as there are people in Juneau. Nonetheless, it is the state capital, demonstrating just how vast and empty this state is. In the summer season, there are three or four cruise liners in port every day, with up to three thousand passengers per ship.

Mercifully, our Wilderness Adventurer has a total of only sixty passengers, but mercilessly two of them are Pam and Bob.

The cruise operators are canny. They ingest and ejaculate all of their passengers at Juneau. But their arrival and departure times in no way coincide with the flights in and out of Juneau.

It must be their way of giving back to the local community, to provide a steady flow of tourists with nothing else to do for a few hours than walk up and down the one long strip of shops, eating king crab and buying tat. Juneau is an odd place: like the surrounding bear-life, it hibernates off-season. The strip is divided into the temporary shops at one end, which resemble picturesque old Wild West saloons and are inhabited by seasonal sellers who quite literally pack up shop in the winter, and local victuallers at the other, less attractive, end, who are there… for ever. Less attractive is how I would describe the residents of Juneau generally. I would not imagine that the telephone directory here contains many different surnames.

Jackie and I have to kill two hours and avoid being killed by a local. Te shops at the seasonal end seem to sell only diamonds, for those ocean liner passengers who are so bored and so wealthy that with only a few hours to spend in Juneau, they spend it by loading their pockets with gems.

The shops at the local end are equally useless to me, as I have no desire for items patched together from bits of bear and otter. I do, however, fnd one important local store with a Red Bull fridge. This is my only chance to refuel before a week without wings. I am followed in by a local in a lumberjack shirt, who seems genuinely surprised at how a door works. People from Alaska (the 49th state) refer to the rest of America as the ‘Lower 48’, which I suspect is also the average IQ level of the people from Juneau. My lumberjack-shirted imbecile then stands at the till with no purpose and no intention to purchase, and instead settles in to watch me open the fridge door, the operation of which again seems to startle him. He laughs and says, ‘Red Bull’. I daren’t roll my eyes at the face-pierced shopkeeper in case she is his mother or his wife or both.

It is only 11 a.m. but we decide to abandon the shops and their delinquents and spend our remaining time in Juneau in a bar, with genuine swinging saloon doors (which must really confuse the locals, on both sides) called the World Famous Red Dog Saloon. I have never heard of it, but it is the best way to waste time in Juneau. There is a live (just about) musician, dressed in ill-fitting cowboy clothes and singing bad country and western songs in a bad Stetson, sitting alongside an unsubtle giant plastic jar (the size of body-builder supplements) labelled, rather optimistically and shoutily, ‘TIPS!’ There is sawdust on the floor, presumably to catch his spittle as he sings. I listen to his set, watch his arches of spit and pray to Charmaine’s God that Nashville will be better than this. As we leave, I put twenty dollars in his jar and make a wish, but he keeps on playing.

We eventually board the ship to perfect blue skies and a placid ocean, uncharacteristic weather for rainy Juneau. We are shown to our modest but comfortable cabin, with our own toilet, the aroma of which reminds me of Glastonbury. Moments later, Pam and Bob are shown to the cabin next door but one. Of course they are. Bob is carrying a guitar. Wistfully, I look across at the other two floating cities currently in port and think how much easier it would be to escape from Pam on ships that size: more places to hide. I wonder if I could swim for it, using Bob’s guitar as a float, but decide the water is probably too polar and it is too nice a guitar (it’s a Martin).

After watching from deck as we set sail and leave Juneau to a sunset, we are called to dinner by Matt’s monotone through the intercom system in our cabin. Larry and Susu join our table. I breathe a sigh of relief and my handshake is probably too exuberant in greeting them, given we have only exchanged one sentence to date. Perilously, there are two remaining seats. A Quentin Tarantino lookalike, with an enviable camera lens and an even more enviable wife, walks straight past us and joins a table with the only other young couple on the cruise. Pam and Bob join our table. Of course they do.

Extracted from Geoff Steward’s entertaining travel book ‘In Search of Nice Americans‘. Buy your copy here.

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