We are on our way to Alaska, the last frontier, not by dog sled to find gold in the Yukon, but a more modern, luxurious style of transport, the beautiful Celebrity Solstice. It’s a brilliant, hot, late summer afternoon in Seattle harbour for our departure. The sun, gracefully setting over the crowded marina, provided perfect pink and lilac hues. That must be the cocktail hour ambiance we preordered. We are on our way to see magnificent glaciers, towering fiords, breaching whales and wild bears in one of the world’s most pristine environments.
What made our ‘sail-away’ even more special was meeting our 72 fellow cruisers from the Pied Piper group. We already knew ‘the ropes’ having sailed with Pied Piper Travel before. A New York based company specialising in gay and lesbian group cruises on an otherwise ‘straight’ ship. At the welcome aboard party in The Sunset Bar at the stern of the ship our very experienced hosts Hal and Kris ensured that the group was given the essential ‘housekeeping notes’ about dining times, cocktail hour meetings at the Martini Bar and Pied Piper recommended shore excursions. Now with our new ‘gay besties’ we were almost ready for our first dinner together and to set sail for Ketchikan in Alaska.
WHAT HAPPENS AT SEA
Sea days are ‘me’ days and that means relaxation, pampering and preening and doing just whatever you feel like. First is the gym, using the high tech equipment and working out with magnificent views from the front of the ship as it cruises at a steady 16 knots to our first destination, as well as trying not to be too obvious while eyeing off the hunk in the weights area.
We then enjoy a healthy breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs in the open dining area at the stern of the ship where the mile long white wake disappears across the horizon. After breakfast we search for good coffee and the best is to be found in Café al Bacio on deck five. This is one of our favourite parts of the ship. Lounging in the luxurious high-backed, chartreuse velvet covered chairs that contrast perfectly with the chocolate coloured, studded leather, deep-cushioned lounges we meet up for chats with guys from the Pied Piper group. Here we sample the freshly baked pastries or, in the afternoons, we sometimes choose an ice-cream sandwich for the ultimate indulgence. After lunch at one of the bountiful buffet options, or the fixed seating restaurants available, it’s time to browse through the shopping emporium for souvenirs or, for more serious buyers, fashionable watches, fine artworks and exclusive jewellery.
The outdoor pool area was not so tempting on a cool-climate Alaskan cruise, but there is an undercover thermal pool area which can be very busy most days. With a massage booked at the Canyon Ranch Spa Club, we looked forward to the full body treatment. To really spoil yourself, a Persian Garden sauna pass is available to enjoy steamy serenity and make your sea days totally hedonistic or there is a free dry sauna inside the men’s locker room for those seeking the hot, masculine option.
For dinner on both our sea days the attire was Evening Chic. Formal nights are ‘so yesterday’ on Celebrity Cruises. But before going to dinner the ritual is for the group to meet between 7.30 and 8pm at the ice–encrusted Martini Bar, for pre dinner drinks. It’s a time to exchange stories, tips and ship gossip and to decide where we will meet again after dinner. Together we make an entrance into the elegant, white Grand Épernay dining room, fashionably late of course, as only a group such as ours would understand.
REFLECTING ON THE JOURNEY
BEARS AND SALMON
Ketchikan was our first port of call in this great northern wilderness. It was time to be serious tourists. We chose a tour to see bears foraging and salmon spawning, a native clan house and an overview of the famous fishing village of Ketchikan. Well, we weren’t disappointed with the salmon. Thousands of slippery black and silver, omega 3 mating parties were swimming the wrong way up the stream to which our guide had led us. Truly a bear’s fantasy. We even saw a couple of hungry black bears, albeit from some distance, feasting in the long grass by the side of the stream.
Back into the coach and off to the other side of town to the native clan house located in Potlatch Park. Here a collection of totems and a museum are built on the fishing grounds of the Tlingit (pronounced Clink-it) Nation. This land has been the home of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshians for thousands of years.
Our native guide explained the significance of the totems, the 3 year preparation for a potlatch (tribal celebration) and we watched a master native carver preparing new totems to be installed in the park.
Next, it was straight into town for some mouthwatering Alaskan crab before heading back to the ship. If you get a chance to visit, try Annabelle’s Keg & Chowderhouse right opposite the port in Front street.
That evening, at our usual pre-dinner Martini Bar rendezvous, we swapped stories with our new friends who had sampled Ketchikan tours ranging from an all you can eat salmon bake to flying in a float plane right into a wildlife viewing spot where you are guaranteed to see bears. The latter being the most expensive and definitely the most adventurous. Our first taste of Alaska left us hungry for more and there was still plenty in store.
The Pied Piper group was invited to the Helipad at the pointy end of the ship at 6am for our sail into the Tracy Arm Fiord and to get up close and personal to the Sawyer Glacier. We thought we might be a little overdressed as we prepared with undershirts, hoodies, jeans, thick socks, scarves, beanies, gloves and waterproof jackets. We needed every bit of this and, as we approached the helipad, the staff handed us a blanket and a cup of piping hot chocolate to make sure we were warm and cosy all over.
‘Spectacular’ is the only word to describe this part of the cruise. Maybe even ‘awe-inspiring’. We cruised almost silently by the massive fiords into a narrow cove which barely looked able to accommodate the ship’s huge girth. After passing by several small icebergs we could soon see the magnificent jewel awaiting us at the end of the inlet.
The glacier resembled a block of blue crystal which had wound its way aimlessly through a mountain range to arrive and end its journey in this surreal place, deep in the Alaskan wilderness. The silence around us was deafening as each passenger absorbed this serene, omnipotent spectacle commanding our attention. The captain moved the ship stealthily up to the glacier’s edge and turned the ship deftly and ever so gently 360 degrees so everyone could take advantage of this breathtaking, dramatic ‘Kodak moment’. We waited for shards to crack and plummet down into the icy depths below, but it was not the day for that, soon we were headed back out to sea, feeling we had witnessed something quite prodigious.
Celebrities we are not but on the super liner Solstice we enjoyed a ‘celebrity life’. Each day of our Alaskan cruise our stateroom attendants serviced our cabin twice. We placed any washing and pressing into a bag and it was back the next day and we had endless food options available 24 hours a day. Of course if we had chosen a suite we would have had our own personal butler and then we would have really felt like royalty.
Celebrity life activities cater for a full range of tastes. We gave a miss to jackpot bingo, music trivia or how to make Limoncello, a very popular Italian liqueur. However, we were totally impressed with the Hot Glass Show where master craftsmen, in collaboration with the Corning Museum of Glass, handmade exquisite plates, bowls and vases from fiery onboard furnaces whilst the ship made its way onto Alaska.
Throughout the cruise we frequently bumped into other members of the Pied Piper group who had either been to an Art Auction, a Beyond the Podium Presentation, like the one we did on Brown and Black Bears of Alaska, or simply spending an afternoon having a well deserved holiday nap by the warm thermal pool.
During the cruise Pied Piper organised two special on board tours, one to the ship’s kitchen and the other to the backstage areas. During the kitchen tour we found out some amazing facts like the nine kitchens on board have around 160 chefs, working twenty-four-seven serving 15,000 meals each day.
At the backstage tour we met members of the Celebrity cast. The cute Australian dancer Nick and the ‘rock hard’ gorgeous gymnast Roman from the Ukraine were, of course, the group favourites. Nick was our guide to the backstage dressing rooms where some guys tried on costumes and we were all totally amazed by the organisation required behind the scenes for nightly performances.
Wine tasting among the Pied Piper group was popular and at Cellar Masters we had the opportunity to try wines from around the world. To help us explore some of the premium wines available our sommelier challenged our ideas and tastes by sampling new varieties both from the old and new worlds.
Evenings were for Celebrity showtime with performances usually at 7:00 and 9:00pm. Cast shows Broken Strings, Amade and Rock City were colourful, energetic and thoroughly engaging and greatly enhanced by the chiselled, erotic aerial acrobats.
Vocalists Jesse Hamilton and rising star Ashley Amber Harris, with her spine-tingling tribute to the late, great Whitney Houston were mesmerising. Late night comedy shows with Al Ducharme and David Burleigh were packed. Whatever your interest on board, celebrity life activities have something for everyone. ‘Spoilt for choice’ some would say.
GAY LIFE ON BOARD
Our gracious Pied Piper hosts Hal and Kris gave us some feedback about the gay factor from their point of view. With 74 guests on this cruise, 70 being gay men and 4 lesbians, do we really need to go on any further? But we will……
Hal has been associated with Pied Piper Travel since it began in 1996. He has been hosting for the company since 1999 when it was expanding rapidly, consequently he has acquired a wealth of experience along the way. Derek, the owner of the company, was fascinated by the cruise industry and discovered, after organising some small group bookings, there was a niche market for this type of business and so it has grown from there. In 2016 Pied Piper now offers group bookings to about 30 different destination, ranging from Alaska on the Celebrity Solstice to windjammer cruises around Tahiti and more sedate but highly popular European river cruises.
After Hal’s first Pied Piper cruise where he just wanted to be a ‘wallflower’, having just come through a difficult personal experience, he made lifelong connections and now firmly believes the networking opportunities are the greatest bonus of this type of gay group cruise. Hal’s favourite destinations are Galapagos and Scandinavian but his very first cruise was to Alaska so our current itinerary always holds a special place in his heart. Prior to hosting for Pied Piper, Hal was a college administrator. His partner Kris works as a software engineer in the field of robotics, but it is clear from their relaxed and efficient management style, they are right at home when organising the ‘PP’ group.
On our Alaskan adventure the average age is approximately 50, which is fairly typical of most Pied Piper groups. However, the Post Thanksgiving cruise is always a much larger crowd, being a slower period for the travel industry and PP in partnership with Celebrity can offer more reasonable prices, better incentives and greater group flexibility. The seven day Post Thanksgiving cruise attracts a wider range of age groups and provides a real opportunity for gay celebration with organised parties and events.
Pied Piper packages include a welcome aboard cocktail party, a mid-cruise gathering, group dining, recommended shore excursions, onboard specialised tours and activities, pre-dinner meet ups, and farewell drinks. This type of organisation is not for ‘party animals’ like some other gay cruises. The diversity of ages and backgrounds means you can participate as much or as little as you choose. Packages, perks and levels of accommodation offered mean there is a standard to suit almost every type of gay traveller and the group discounts make it even more attractive. Fun, like-minded people can share some fabulous vacation time and take home a swag of memories and a phone full of new contacts for the future.
Book as early as possible through Pied Piper Travel to ensure that you get the benefit of a ‘group fare’ and the best out of the ‘go better best’ package. You can choose among a free beverage package, free internet or $US300 credit to your cabin. Also, try to book a cabin in the centre of the ship for smoother sailing. We always book a balcony cabin which is advantageous for enjoying sailing in and out of each port of call.
You know the old adage, ‘it’s not hard to go on a cruise as a passenger and come off as cargo’. There is delicious, tempting food everywhere you look. The buffet in the Oceanview Café offers a great range of choices and caters for any tastes or individual requirements and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Pied Piper group dines each night in the Grand Épernay at the 8:30pm sitting. It assigns each person in the group to a table but before departure you can request to be put at the same table as your travel companions. As the cruise progresses some people move to different tables to meet new friends. There are also a number of speciality restaurants which offer a variety of culinary styles and international flavours for a reasonable price.
A couple of weeks before you sail you will receive an email outlining shore excursions. Warning: most shore excursions are expensive but they do come with benefits. If you book with Celebrity your excursion leaves within close proximity to the ship, it is with a reputable operator and the ship will not sail without you if your excursion returns late for any reason. Pied Piper also has recommended excursions and these are popular as the group often has their own bus, train carriage or boat and it is an opportunity to get to know your new friends a little better.
For very local tours like guided walks around town or taking a cable car, our advice is to go solo, find the local tourist information office and have the flexibility to explore where your interests take you. However, keep your eye on the time and be back before the ship sails. As we are often reminded, ‘you’ll get a great photo of the ship as it leaves the harbour without you when you arrive back too late’.
Leaving Seattle in mid August we experience what northern Americans call a heatwave where the temperature was about 32 degrees. By the time we hit Tracy Arm Fiord near Juneau and Skagway in the north of the Alaskan Inside Passage we needed layers, layers, layers. Pack a beanie, gloves, scarf and a warm jacket. You will need them all. Wet weather is almost certainly guaranteed with over 200 wet days a year in this part of the world, so an all weather jacket will be handy. The shore excursions offer great opportunities for climbing, hiking and rafting. If you’re the adventurous type, get the necessities organised before you sail.
Dinner is a smart casual affair so a long sleeved shirt or polo T with your choice of chinos or stylish jeans will be perfect. Celebrity has now opted for ‘Evening Chic’ to replace formal nights. So you need to leave the ‘tux’ and patent leather pumps back in the closet. This is a vacation not a ‘fashionista fiesta’. There are no theme nights so you can also retire the grass skirt and coconuts. Whatever you decide to pack, your camera or your phone will be your most important companion to capture the absolutely stunning land and seascapes, wildlife and natural beauty of this untouched wilderness. Bon Voyage!