Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Cruising at 50

20 years ago, as I was about to cross the threshold of 30 years, I was in a fretful mood.  My hair was falling out, defying my desperate attempts to mask the loss.  My career was going nowhere.  I had no steady relationship.  Then, one day as I drove home from my retail job, I began to think of friends who had died before they reached 30, and told myself “Drake, quit crabbing – you’re luckier than they are.”

And so, I carried on, recently turning 50 - a rather momentous occasion in a person’s life.  Again, I thought of those who had not made it as far as I: my maternal grandfather, an alcoholic with one kidney who died at 47; of President Kennedy, murdered in his limousine as he rode beside his wife; his brother Robert, who died in a similar fashion.  So, I consider myself lucky to have reached 50, and felt it was cause for celebration beyond the usual birthday cake.  For Dan’s 40th birthday, we travelled to London.  This time, I decided to do something neither of us had done before: we went on a cruise.  Narrowing our search to a rather modest cruise, we landed on a California Coastal Cruise from Princess Cruises.  This had the added advantage of being able to show Dan a bit of California, where he’d never been before.

To reduce the risk of missing our cruise due to airport weather, we flew to San Francisco a day early – in fact, I turned 50 while airborne.  Our flight (United, which offers the only non-stop from Cleveland to SFO) arrived right on time.  Taking BART from the airport to the Embarcadero, I was reminded of how friendly San Franciscans are – everyone seemed to be smiling. 

I’ve wanted to visit the Hyatt Regency since seeing it in 1979’s Time After Time.  Our check in there was not scheduled until 4pm, but when I showed up at 11am to drop off our bags, we received our room key at no extra charge.  Then, after glancing at my driver’s license, the clerk wished me a happy birthday, excused himself for a moment, and returned with a $25 gift card for their café.  Our 16th floor room was gorgeous, with a firm king sized bed, large TV, and balcony with a view of the bay. 

But the last thing I would want to do in San Francisco is vegetate in a hotel room.  Despite the rain, Dan & I did quite a bit of sightseeing – although our walk was less ambitious than a tour I’d mapped out on Google.  Still, I was able to show Dan several familiar sights, including the infamous “double dumb ass on you” intersection from Star Trek IV and Macondray Lane – the inspiration for Barbary Lane from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Dan was amazed by the steep hills, and by the time we returned to the Hyatt, our legs were shaking.  As afternoon approached evening, we took the excellent public transportation to The Castro, where we would later meet up with my brother and his girlfriend.  The Castro is known as San Francisco’s main LGBT neighborhood – although like in many cities, the community has spread out over recent decades.  But even if gays don’t live in the Castro, this is where they go to play and meetup with friends.  

Dan & I browsed around the area until my brother showed up to take us on a whirlwind tour of the city and dinner at Hot Spud – which specializes in baked potatoes, followed by dessert at Powder Shaved Snow.  There are few in my family who I feel so relaxed and comfortable with as my brother, and it was a pleasure seeing him again.

The next morning, we had a leisurely walk through the Embarcadero to our ship, waiting in Pier 27.  The boarding process was handled efficiently and soon enough we were checked into our stateroom and sailing under the Golden Gate bridge.

Courtesy of cruisedeckplans.com

 Cruising is quite different than depicted on The Love Boat, which featured an all-American, mostly Caucasian cast.  As the British Captain, Ronald Wilson, noted during departure festivities, both crew and passengers were exceptionally diverse, originating from 48 and 33 countries, respectively.  Captain Wilson pointedly commented that the crew works together in “perfect peace and harmony” – something the outside world could learn from.  They certainly seemed to enjoy each other’s company as well as the passengers – I never saw so much as a cross glance between them.  Although my gaydar is no longer as finely tuned as in previous years, I suspect about 40% of the male crewmembers (at least those who interact with the public) are gay – something never seen on The Love Boat.  Then there’s the ship – in our case, the Grand Princess.  The Pacific Princess of TV fame was a tinker toy compared to the giant we sailed on, which is 951 feet long, has 17 decks, displaces 109,000 tons, and can hold a whopping 3,100 passengers and 1,100 crew.  Thanks to our Costco membership, we snaged a great price on a balcony stateroom (Lido 230) and a shipboard credit of $140.  The cruising experience was like being in an enclosed city, where there are people waiting on your every need – along with those trying to sell you things you don’t need.  The food was unlimited, with a large buffet and several specialty restaurants.  One night, we dined at the Crown Grill where I enjoyed a perfectly prepared rib-eye steak.  We had two “at-sea” days during which there was plenty to do – dancing, musicals, films (we saw Moonlight and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children), spa services (I received my first ever pedicure), and contests – we won a bottle of champagne at an astronomical trivia challenge.

On Monday we dropped anchor at Santa Barbara.  Since there’s no large pier there, we took a tender ship from the Grand Princess to shore.  From there, we boarded a bus to Solvang, a town founded by Danish immigrants in 1911 and built in the style of their native land.  Frankly, the town was not especially interesting although there were a few nice art galleries and an antique store that was very impressive - and of course the Æbleskivers were delicious. 

Tuesday, we docked at Long Beach.  We skipped the Shore Excursion since we were docked next to the Queen Mary.  I’d previously been there when I was 13 and remember being awed by the ship’s size, luxury, and Art Deco style.  Sadly, the grand old lady has markedly deteriorated since then.  Many of the exhibits have been closed, paint is peeling everywhere, the deck boards are cracked, rust abounds – there was even a discarded water bottle floating above the ship’s massive propeller.  It was depressing to see, and matters were not improved by a bus trip to a poorly planned shopping center.

The following day, we docked in San Diego, next to the Star Princess and near the naval base where my father was stationed in the 1950s.  Time constraints did not allow us to visit the base, but we did enjoy a bus tour around San Diego, including La Jolla and the Old Town.

Our last excursion, on Thursday, was in Ensenada, Mexico.  Again, there was another ship nearby, in this case the Carnival Inspiration – which was about the least inspired ship I’ve seen.  We opted to see La Bufadora, and although the tide was low we were sprayed.  We were also amused by the aggressive flea market vendors, who would shout their wares, offering “ten dollar, for you eight, no SIX!”  

As we arrived back on our ship, our moods reflected the fact that our vacation would soon be over.  Our last full day moved at a relaxed pace, featuring a cooking demonstration and tour of the main galley.

The only thing that marred the cruise was about 30 hours of rough seas on the way home.  Neither of us slept well the final two nights of our cruise, and a number of passengers were seasick.  Of course, there’s nothing the crew can do about the weather, and while the ride was rough, I pointed out to Dan that the shifts and swells we experienced were not that noteworthy on a ship that’s almost 1,000 feet long.

Here’s a video of highlights from our trip.

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