Let Us Entertain You

The 50th State as Seen from the Sea Aboard the Crystal Symphony 

By Paulette Cooper

When you're looking at a "Best" list in a travel publication, your eyes don't have to travel far to find Crystal Cruises winning some award, often for Best Shipboard Entertainment. And once you get on board the Crystal Harmony or the Crystal Symphony, you don't have to travel far--any one of several lounges will do--to see why the entertainment is always singled out as superior to other ships.

Indeed, if you're the more sedentary type, (read: lazy) you don't even have to go to a lounge to be entertained. Your cabin will do, and I'm not talking about *that* kind of entertainment, but rather movies. You can stay inside and watch one of 30 movies they play each day on the Movie Channel or the Comedy Channel (what? No Lifetime movies?).

If your taste is to live entertainment, though, this is the line you should choose. Of course, if you go on an Alaskan inner passage cruise, the scenery and wildlife is supposed to be the main entertainment (I think I'm supposed to say that). But the evening productions on board the Crystal Harmony (and the Symphony) is so outstanding, that sometimes you're not sure whether what's on the ship is better to watch than what's off it.

This is definitely not your typical cruise/hotel show with a Passenger (no)Talent Night, or the even more cringe-worthy, waiter-dresses-in-drag-and-lip-syncs type shows. No, these are real Broadway-style performances. For example, on a recent Alaskan cruise I took with my husband Paul (see picture above), one of the evenings featured a musical medley from the '50's. Ten super-talented performers sang 119 favorite selections (from Elvis to "Sh-boom") in l l/4 hours, with at least two dozen seamless costume and scenery changes throughout. In another show, a Gershwin medley, they spent $25,000 on the dancers' shoes alone.

Whatever show they're doing, what you get is more than what you see. For example, each performer has a separate backstage dresser just to change his/her costumes and keep the show moving along. (These changes in costume and sets are great for those of us in the second sitting who would otherwise have difficulty staying awake for a show that ends near midnight.) Besides the regular spectaculars, they also have an outstanding 3-actor Repertory Group who perform everything from Shakespeare to Neil Simon, plus a concert pianist, various lecturerers, a trio, a sextet, miscellaneous performers, and movie videos in the theater.

But Alaska itself is (supposedly) the real entertainment so here's what a cruise through the Inside Passage is like.

FIRST DAY: Readyâ?¦ Setâ?¦. Sail. We pulled out at midnight, after spending a glorious day and a half in Vancouver. We made a good choice by staying at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport, since this beautiful hotel is only an elevator ride up from the arrival area, enabling us to immediately take a two hour nap when we checked in.

We enjoyed everything we saw and did in this charming city (especially the horse & carriage ride through Stanley Park), but were disappointed that we couldn't find a Chinese restaurant, which are rumored to be excellent here. While we wandered through Chinatown, we foolishly listened to a native who warned us that the restaurants there might not be clean. (Her language was more graphic than that.) Afterwards, we wondered why we had taken the advice of a stranger carrying a tiny Yorkie she had dressed in a denim outfit with a matching cap.

DAY TWO: After 9 hours of sailing, we finally found our Chinese food at a restaurant in their quaint-looking one-block Chinatown area. Our half-day stop was made even more rose-y with a trip to Butchart Gardens, with its spectacular rose garden, fountains, and Japanese garden. As we pulled out, we saw similar ships docked near us, and gloated with our new friends upon hearing that they carry twice as many passengers as our 900, although their ships' sizes were similar. Click here for definition of schadenfreude. Tonight is the first of three black tie nights. This ship, which charges more than most comparable cruises, is serious about this, unlike some vessels in which "formal" night means passengers wear clean T-shirts. We enjoyed last night's mini-musical cabaret version of Gilbert & Sullivan, and tonight they presented another spectacular, "Million Dollar Musicals," another four-star production, with a cast of 10 and a 6-piece orchestra.

DAY THREE: A relaxing day at sea in which we went to Yoga classes, an Italian cooking demonstration, and advanced computer lessons in website design and digital photography, which are given free at the [email protected] We skipped the more traditional shipboard dance lessons, the wine tasting, and the gambling, even though the Crystal Symphony has the only Caesars Palace at Sea). Paul lost at Scrabble to another passenger, even though he tried to insist that "Jo" is a word. In the evening, there was a cabaret show with singers, dancers and a ventriloquist. See puppetboy.com

DAY FOUR: Today, at the port of Sitka, we finally learned what Alaskan "entertainment" is like. We went by boat on Allen Cruises's Sea Otter and Wildlife trip, where we saw a raft of adorable Sea Otters on their backs in the traditional praying position (they're actually warming their furless paws.) We also stopped near a rock filled with sea lions --which from a distance looked like leeches--we were impressed by several bald eagles perched majestically on branches, and we were really excited when we saw the tail of a whale from a mile away. Hey, that's more wildlife than we saw in Orleans.

DAY FIVE: There was a 3:45 AM sunrise today after a memorable 10:45 sunset last night. Before that, we had stuffed ourselves at dinner in their specialty Japanese restaurant--the Crystal Harmony is owned by a Japanese company-- and then saw another terrific show. Juneau, our stop for today, has a tram up Mt. Robert, which provides a spectacular view for the fearless. We also took a cab ride to our first glacier, Mendenhall Glacier, stopping afterwards for Alaskan amber beer at the fun and famous Red Dog Saloon. Then, it was time for another favorite Alaskan entertainment: shopping. Most of the places have "fleece" jackets that are really polyester, and T-shirts (made in Asia) saying things like "We Be Shopping" and "Men and Salmon Go Upstream To Spawn."

"The town reminded me of the Cape Ann area of Gloucester"

DAY SIX: The port today is Skagway, and with only 820 residents, there are almost more stores than people. Now, this former brothel town hooks people for their money instead. Still, it's money well spent, especially if you use it on the 3-hour White Pass & Yukon Route Railway. This 19-car train pulled by diesel engines follows the route built at the end of the 19th century during the Gold Rush, and a round trip to Canada was the highlight of our visit to this town. Back on board in the late afternoon, we won a group word game called Liar's Club--winning because we're good at words, not because we're good at lying. Our prize was two embossed golf towels, which we will cherish always. (Now where the heck did we put them?) DAYS SEVEN & EIGHT: Today we arrived at the famous Glacier Bay, where we saw a "floatilla" (get it?) of bluish glaciers close-up, even more beautiful than the photos I've seen of these behemoths.

One bored passenger who took this trip last year told me that "If you've seen one glacier you've seen them all." That may be true, but you haven't seen anything until you've seen one. The next day's port was Ketchikan, with shops full of the usual T-shirts, jackets, salmon and gold nuggets: "The town reminded me of the Cape Ann area of Gloucester," said Loretta Alibrandi from Concord, Massachusetts. But one thing you don't find in Cape Ann that until recently you found here were whorehouses.

The main drag, Creek Street, which runs along a yep, you guessed it, creek, was once a red light district. Now the small bungalows with large windows (where the prostitutes sat as they beckoned their customers), have been converted into stores that sell, yes indeed, more T-shirts and artifacts. One exception is Dolly's House, which remains pretty much as it did when they finally closed it down in 1953. Dolly, who was actually Thelma, was one of the most famous prostitutes in Alaska. She must have been awfully good at something, because from the many photos in her house, she looked like a dog (not as cute as a real one) and she weighed over 250 pounds--without a man on top of her.

DAYS NINE & TEN: During the final two days at sea we realized what the real entertainment on board had been: eating. Besides all the indoor restaurants -including a wonderful Italian specialty restaurant in addition to the Japanese--there were a few incredible outdoor luncheon buffets, for example, Asian and American. "Never have so few eaten so much for such a short period of time," quipped the headwaiter as he bid the passengers farewell.

"Never have so few eaten so much for such a short period of time"

Indeed, the only meal they didn't serve was a Midnight Buffet. The concierge explained why when I asked him: "Most of the passengers are asleep by 11." That about summed up this crowd: a bit older, (happily, there were almost no screaming children on board); a bit more genteel (which may be why the peace wasn't constantly broken with loud speaker announcements as happens on some other ships); and a bit richer. Also, after this cruise, almost everyone was a bit fatter.

Finally, before you take a Crystal Cruise, or any cruise, here's Cooper's Rules of Cruising: Pack a yellow highlighter so you can underline what you want to do on each day's schedules. When packing for a cruise, take out everything you plan to pack and then put half of it back. (This was taught to me by travel writer Kay Showker) If you don't want this to be a 10 day/9 pound cruise, order what you want but only eat half of what's on your plate. Especially the dessert. Never take the ship's elevators. Always walk up and down the steps and you'll slip in some exercise and slip off some pounds.

CONTACT: Crystal Cruises, (310) 785-9300
RATES and Alaska SAIL DATES: Crystal Cruises, http://www.crystalcruises.com/offer_detail.aspx?OG=19  

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