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Around America: From the Outside Looking In
By Mitch Traphagen
Jun 1, 2007, 01:51

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With a view of the starboard bridge of the Sapphire Princess, the sun rises over the Pacific Ocean. For this part of the trip around America, I was on the outside looking in. Mitch Traphagen Photo
– I opened my eyes to see the sunrise over America.  It was spectacular and somewhat overwhelming.  Around me, the Pacific Ocean swirled and rolled in indescribable shades of blue; California appeared as a dark smudge on the horizon.  I was on the outside looking in at my country.

The taxi ride from the Queen Mary Hotel to the World Cruise Center at Los Angeles Harbor was only about 15 minutes – but it seemed as if 80 years passed during the short ride that ended at Princess Cruise Lines’ gleaming Sapphire Princess.  It was a change in eras that was a palpable shock to the senses.  The builders of the Queen Mary stretched the technology of their time – yet that ship pales in comparison to what we enjoy today.

Unlike the Queen Mary, there are no ghost tours aboard the Sapphire Princess.  In the same vein, however, there is also no Deck 13 on this ship.  Sure, we’ve evolved, and yes, we have some incredible technology, but apparently there’s no point in taking chances.

Even without Deck 13, the other 17 decks of this magnificent ship are more than enough to keep anyone busy for the duration of a cruise.  In this case, I would be lucky to see even a fraction of it.  From Los Angeles, my five-day cruise would take me to Victoria, British Columbia, and ultimately to Vancouver.  

Given the traffic madness in California, I think a cruise ship is the ideal way to travel up the coast.  You are well cared for and exceedingly well fed, and there is no traffic to speak of – which is irrelevant anyway, since someone else is doing the driving.

Los Angeles may be big and just a tad impersonal, but you wouldn’t know it by meeting John the Porter outside the Princess Cruise Lines terminal.  I handed him my bag, a single bill of a respectable but not overly large denomination and asked him if he thought I would ever see my luggage again.  He smiled, shook my hand, took the bill and then told me to wait where I was.  He grabbed my bag and carried it directly to the loading ramp.  It arrived at my cabin soon after.

John was the first in a long line of people willing and apparently happy to go out of their way for the passengers.  The staff and crew of the Sapphire Princess were, without exception, excellent.  Words like “without exception” tend to be used when, perhaps, they should not – but in this case I mean it literally.  I did not encounter a single crew member who could be described as anything less than professional, friendly and helpful.  Not one.

There was a good mix among the people on this ship – the population somehow seemed squarely in the middle of everything, which is a good thing.  Complementary people travel well together, after all – even on a cruise ship of 3,000.  There were a few children – enough to add smiles – but not so many that it felt like a cruise ship version of Romper Room.  There were enough young people to add life but not so many that you found yourself tripping over the wasted remnants of a booze cruise.  For every classification you could think of, it seems this ship had enough but not too many.

Boarding began around noon, and by 1:15 p.m., the first waffle robe-wearing passengers could be seen wandering the outside decks, already well into relaxation mode.  On the Sun Deck, tropical drinks were being served by uniformed crew members, the buffet was doing a brisk business, and pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs were available by the pool.

A traditional tea was held each afternoon in the dining room – complete with white glove service.  At the same time, an art auction played to a full house; adults kicked back and relaxed on the expansive rear decks while kids played in the several swimming pools on board the ship.  Golf was aft; tennis, forward; and jewelry and other duty-free treasures could be purchased on the Promenade Deck.

It would seem that great care was taken to create distinct spaces on this ship.  Whatever the motivation or the means, they were successful.  Within steps you could go from rock and roll in a cozy yet concertlike nightclub to the soft sounds of piano solos accompanying a fine wine.  It is a remarkable achievement of design.

Captain Nicholas Bates is a man with a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye.  Being the master of one of the largest vessels afloat puts him in a small, very elite group.  Yet even within that group, few, if any, can match his credentials.  With a career spanning more than four decades, his command has ranged from cargo ships to the Queen Elizabeth 2 and now the Sapphire Princess.  He was approachable and engaging, and it seemed as though the entire ship went quiet during his daily noon updates from the bridge; updates that often included a good bit of trivia and humor.

bridge. In many ways, Bates stands alone in the elite group of the world’s ship captains. He was formerly captain of the legendary Queen Elizabeth 2 and now his charm and expertise is shared with the crew and passengers of the much larger Sapphire Princess. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Under his command are nearly 1,200 people, mostly under the age of 30 and representing more than 33 nations, all working within the confined space of the ship.  While common sense would suggest the challenges of such management would be extreme, Bates made it seem effortless.  A direct reflection of the captain, the disparate crew worked well together, and the results were outstanding – they all have met him, they know him and they respect him.  It was a true melting pot, much like America itself is – or, at least, was, and perhaps could be again.

Normally, I hate wearing a suit and tie.  I bristled when required to do so for a job.  But I’ve found that formal night on a cruise ship is an exception.  On that night I actually enjoy tying that knot around my neck because it is so cool to see a ship full of vacationers dress up in the best clothes they could stuff into a suitcase.  It’s almost like an adult version of prom night.  Some don’t bother, but most do.  It is an event that should not be missed.

On that night, I enjoyed dinner with a couple from a small town in Alberta.  The conversation and laughter made for a memorable evening – and one that I would never have had the chance to experience had I not been on this ship.  To make the evening more perfect, our waitress, Florentina Tarhdaca, made us feel as though we were the only people in the room.  I don’t know how she accomplished that – but it is one of the magical aspects of cruising.  No hotel is able to put strangers together for dinner and have them leave as friends.  And no restaurants on land have anyone like Florentina.

The next night, I had the opportunity to visit Trattoria Sabatini, one of the ship’s premium restaurants.  It began with an excellent bottle of Italian wine – and that’s when the trouble started.  Plate after plate of food was brought to my table – most of it I didn’t recognize, but all of it was outstanding.  Finally the salad arrived, and it was excellent, but neither that nor the appetizers did anything to prepare me for dinner.  What they set on the table was just shy of heaven.  Dinner, I thought, was unbelievable.

But it turned out that wasn’t dinner.

What I had just enjoyed more than any other meal was merely another stop in a seemingly endless stream of appetizers.  My waiter then brought the real dinner – a plate of the biggest scallops I have ever seen in my life.  

“The scallops are gigantic, and so am I,” I thought when I saw them.  “They are going to have to roll me out of this place.”

Being worldly matters not here – the waiters are more than happy to help those whose knowledge of Italian food doesn’t extend past spaghetti. There is a small additional charge, but the experience alone is well worth it.  I believe there is a reason certain regions of Italy have populations with unusually long life spans:  People keep living because they are always looking forward to dinner.

Trattoria Sabatini, one of the ship’s premium restaurants, is an experience beyond words. The outstanding service and incredible food make an evening well worth the small additional price charged. Above, waiter Iliesca Doru pours a fine Italian wine. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Just like dinner was not yet dinner, the plate of wonderful cookies they brought was not yet dessert.

“The crème brûlée is excellent,” I thought to myself.  “And now I’m going to explode.”

But somehow I managed to walk out on my own, fully intact.

During dinner, I sat next to a small group with two women who overheard my conversation with the waiter about writing a travel story.  As a result, one of the women thought that I must be an expert on world travel. The other woman at the table wanted to know what I thought was the world’s best hotel.

My thought? It’s not in Ruskin.

She asked about hotels in Dubai.

That’s not in Ruskin, either.

In the end, she had never been and neither have I – but we agreed that Dubai hotels would probably be good.

With artists in the kitchen and friends from the Old Country serving up anything and everything, Sabatini’s is one of the best bargains on the ship.  Go, and you will be treated like a big spender without having to actually spend big.  But make your reservations early – bargains tend to sell out quickly.

Sapphire is an interesting ship.  It was clear a great deal of attention was paid to creating an aura of luxury - and it worked.  It is a good mix of the traditional and the high-tech.  Most impressive was the fact that they still practice using a sextant and continue to work paper charts on the bridge – in addition, naturally, to the high-tech stuff.  The Promenade is less shopping mall and more upscale-type shopping square, and there are many peaceful nooks and crannies in which to just sit back and relax – all with an ocean view.  Unfortunately, just as I began to learn my way around, our destination loomed near.

The final hours of a cruise are an odd sort of transition.  During the night, my statement was delivered and the name card outside my door had been tipped up.  In its place was a new card with names I did not recognize.  They were people I would never see – and they would never know that I was there.  In their excitement in boarding this beautiful ship, they would never know that their cabin had been my cabin only a few hours earlier.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:  A cruise ship is a human way to travel.  An airplane may get you to your destination quickly, but even in first class, all everyone wants to do is get off as quickly as possible.  A cruise ship, however, provides the rare opportunity to enjoy the passing of time.  Cruising tends to maximize your vacation dollars, but there is no way to put a value on the simple enjoyment of passing time.

My cabin was on the starboard side of the ship.  Since we were northbound, I had a view looking toward the coast.  On the last night of the cruise, I left my drapes open during the night so the sunrise would serve as my alarm clock.

A photo to provide some scale: A lone woman is dwarfed by the Sapphire Princess while in port in Victoria, British Columbia. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Instead, I awoke to feeble, dim light.  I raised my head off my pillow and looked out at a cold, gray sky and a steel-colored sea.  I was not unhappy.  Had this day dawned with picture-perfect blue skies, I would likely have felt compelled to get out of bed.  Instead, I nestled further under the warm blankets and closed my eyes to enjoy another hour of sleep.

Coming up next week in Around America:  Traveling from Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest to the Midwest can be a bit disorienting.  After all, it would seem you can’t get much further away from L.A. than New Auburn, Wis.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Story Links:

Photo Gallery - Aboard the Sapphire Princess.

Princess Cruise Lines:
If you are thinking about an Alaska cruise, give Princess, and more specifically, the Sapphire Princess, strong consideration.  It is a wonderful ship.  Princess also sails out of Ft. Lauderdale for Caribbean cruises and adventures to the Panama Canal.

Princess Bridge Cams:
Princess provides live, streaming web cams from their ships – this page is well worth checking out – it’s almost like taking a mini vacation around the world.

K&B Travel - Martha Bier:
During the planning stages of this trip, I had just about given up on finding an economical way to travel around the country.  That was when Martha Bier stepped in.  She is an expert on cruises and was an invaluable resource to me for this segment of Around America.

With a Pinch of Salt:  Available at booksellers and
Captain Nick Bates, master of the Sapphire Princess, uses his extensive knowledge and humor to explain everyday phrases and their sea-faring origins.

Queen Mary Hotel:
Information about the history of the ship as well as hotel rates and reservations.

Around America Part One

© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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