I have never had any desire to go on a cruise. Like Las Vegas, bachelorette parties or Burning Man, the idea leaves me with a cold lack of enthusiasm best encapsulated by the title essay in David Foster Wallace’s cruise-skewering “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
If it’s supposed to be fun, it usually isn’t.
But this summer, my parents made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: We would spend a week touring Alaska’s Inside Passage, and we wouldn’t take a monster cruise ship like the ones crowding out the horizon over Elliott Bay. There would be no Lido deck on our ship. No dinner and a show, no cheeseburgers at 2 a.m., no jumbotron, no towels folded into swans.
Instead, we’d take a small vessel operated by a Seattle company called UnCruise, pitched as an alternative to the Princesses and Celebrities of the world. Our agenda would include glaciers, day hikes and an open bar, and all the promotional copy — “extrasensory and uncensored” — drove home the point that this wasn’t a normal cruise. It was a cool cruise.
I was convinced. Forced fun gives me hives, but true adventure does not. And I needed a vacation. So at the end of June, I flew to Sitka, Alaska, where I boarded a boat called the Wilderness Explorer with my parents, our family friends, and 50 strangers for a weeklong cruise.
My cruise skepticism would not last the first hour onboard, as my friend Joan and I checked into our tiny but adorable cabin, then sipped Champagne in the bow-adjacent bar with our parents and fellow passengers, a charming mix of parents traveling with their adult children and older adults traveling alone or with partners or friends.
Our captain, an impossibly affable man named Dan, walked us through abandon-ship protocol and the week ahead. In addition to all meals, Capt. Dan told us, we had a daily afternoon cookie hour, a daily happy hour with snacks, and unfettered access to an open bar. In between all this eating and drinking, we’d go on excursions — we had our pick of kayaking trips, bushwhacking through dense forest and nature walks. If whales popped up beside the boat, we’d be notified immediately over the ship’s PA system so we wouldn’t miss out.
Our first wildlife encounter came that night, after most of us had gone to bed. The Wilderness Explorer came to a loud, grinding halt, and Capt. Dan’s voice crackled over the PA system. “Everything is OK,” he said softly, like a kindergarten teacher gently interrupting nap time. “In fact, very OK.”
A pod of orcas had been sighted off the bow, and we would be following them for as long as possible. I heard a quick succession of cabin doors slamming open up and down the hall. I jumped out of my narrow bunk, pulled rubber boots and sweats on over my pj’s and ran upstairs, where an impressive crowd had already assembled.
The last time I’d seen orcas, it had been only dorsal fins, brief glimpses of slick black shapes in the water on a trip across the Rosario Strait between the San Juan Islands and Anacortes. I hadn’t seen a pod this close in years, and it was right next to us. I lingered on deck, then rushed downstairs to tell Joan. I didn’t think to wake my parents, a misstep I would struggle to live down for the rest of the week.
Some folks took pictures, but there was no one to send them to. Most of the areas the Wilderness Explorer went through had no cell service, and there was no Wi-Fi onboard. I felt deliriously free — when you’ve spent the better part of a decade in and out of newsrooms, the two most beautiful words you’ve ever heard may be “No Service.”
You get used to it fast.
The partial appeal of a traditional cruise — or any vacation for that matter — is exactly that feeling of escapism, a balm of separation between self and routine, what I have always referred to as “vacation rules,” when the usual strictures of one’s existence no longer apply.
This can be expressed on such banal terms as ordering a cocktail on an airplane, or it can be utterly existential. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wallace writes that “A vacation is a respite from unpleasantness, and since consciousness of death and decay are unpleasant, it may seem weird that the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay.”
Fascinatingly, he reports that the traditional cruise experience “skillfully [enables passengers] in the construction of various fantasies of triumph over just this death and decay. One way to ‘triumph’ is via the rigors of self-improvement. … But there’s another way out, too: not titivation but titillation; not hard work but hard play.”
A traditional cruise, then, you could say, is a way to conquer death through relentless leisure.
After all the hot toddies I drank in the hot tub on the bow of the Wilderness Explorer, the afternoon cookie hours spent blissfully reading, it would be disingenuous to say that I can’t relate to this desire for unencumbered rest and relaxation.
But the UnCruise did make me think about death and decay. It is difficult to avoid when you’re standing on the bow of a small ship in Glacier Bay, looking out into the beautiful desolation of a bright-blue glacier that existed long before you ever did, as an interpretive park ranger assigned to your boat for the day explains that the very landscape around you is beginning to shift and warp, a case study in the effects of climate change. Compared to the glaciers, we were specks, impossibly tiny. Our lives held meaning for us, but in geological time, they were blips on radar, small and insignificant.
Before we nosed up to the glaciers, we had passed an island teeming with wildlife — puffins, a colony of boorish bachelor sea lions, elegant slim black birds flying above. It felt like a glimpse into what the world might look like without humans. Watching the cacophony of life on the island, I found myself imagining just that. Unchecked, climate change would almost certainly ensure our own destruction. But maybe the planet would be better off without us. It was an uncomfortable thought, and one I couldn’t keep to myself. When I expressed this newfound nihilism to my mother, she said it reminded her of George Carlin’s “saving the planet” joke.
I looked it up on YouTube after we came home. “The planet is fine,” says Carlin, with his signature delivery — cranky, but not cold. “The planet isn’t going anywhere. … The planet’ll be here. We’ll be long gone, just another failed mutation, just another closed-end biological mistake, an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
By the time we got to Glacier Bay, we’d spent a week tramping through forest and climbing over rocks, jumping into icy saltwater (warmer than Puget Sound!) off the ship and in glacially blue coves, and drinking Aperol spritzes before dinner. (One family made a habit of drinking tawny port in front of the ship’s bridge each night after eating.) We’d sat beside the chief mate in front of the sextant as a massive cruise ship showed up on our radar and eventually passed us on the left, a riot of multicolored swirls and stacked staterooms. The chief mate gamely switched the music on his small radio from Ariana Grande to something more appropriately disco. Joan and I had befriended the creator of my favorite Netflix cartoon in the hot tub. Everyone reported sleeping better than they had in months, and I wondered if I would be able to at home, without the soothing listing of the ship, the sea air coming in through the cracked window above my pillow.
We had watched Dall’s porpoises flick in and out of our ship’s wake, their tails jerking side to side with a frenetic cuteness. And finally, my time in the orca-sighting doghouse had come to an end when, as we motored outside Seal Bay one day, a pod of the whales got even closer to the boat. There were seven of them, ranging from a baby new enough to still have some of its orangy infant markings, and the grandfather of the pod, his dorsal fin a huge triangle indicating the great whale beneath the choppy gray-blue water.
As they jumped, breached and played, I watched from the deck with my parents and our friends, as everyone around us did the same thing.
“We’re a bunch of families watching a family,” I heard someone say. And we were.
If you go
UnCruise Adventures operates small-ship journeys in a number of locations across North and South America, including several in the Pacific Northwest. Alaska cruises depart from Juneau, Sitka, and other locations from April to September with itineraries lasting 7-14 nights. Per-person rates start from $2,995 to $11,995. You can add on to the base rate for nicer accommodations, but that can get prohibitively expensive fast, and everyone in my party was happy with the basic, most affordable option.
Alaska Airlines operates a number of daily flights to Juneau and Sitka from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Aviation geeks will appreciate early-morning milk run flights servicing a number of remote communities throughout Southeast Alaska.)
More information on UnCruise trips can be found at uncruise.com.