Each evening after dinner on our Alaskan cruise, Edie and I would walk through Deck Five where at that time of day, most passengers could find some form of entertainment to suit. Close enough to the main dining room to suggest shared kitchens, we’d pass by a restaurant billed as five star and featuring steak and seafood. What I suspect really distinguished this establishment from the main dining room was first, price and second, delusions of grandeur. Reservations were required although not once in fourteen days did we pass the place without noting empty tables. The price of the dinner was, I suppose, fairly modest compared to, say, Le Cirque whose heritage the shipboard chef claims; on the other hand, taking into account that all meals had been included in the fare, $39 a person extra (not including beverage other than water) seemed to us a bit uppity so we did not indulge.
Passed the restaurant on the port side was a coffee bar that with the right color scheme could have passed for the kind of Starbucks one finds in supermarkets only without the seedy types piggy backing free internet access . Oddly, for being so close to the dining room where one could drink endless cups of coffee for nothing, this place did a brisk business selling their concoctions and pastries at more than Starbucks prices, at all hours, day and night.
Beyond the coffee bar, still on the port side, is The Casino. Did you know that slot machines can no longer be accurately called “one-armed bandits?” They don’t have arms anymore. Now that I think about it, I suppose that would explain why they are now generically called “slots”. Once upon a time I played a nickel slot machine. There were no lights and no electronic sounds. The coin went in the slot and you heard it slide down a chute and clunk into a box. You pulled the arm all the way down and let it go. It returned to the upright position with a pneumatic sigh while four cylinders whirled around with a softly blurred clicking. Then they would stop, one at a time, chunking into place. When rarely all four cylinders came to rest on the same image, nickels issued down a chute and into a waiting cup which overflowed from time to winning time if the matched images all declared, “Jackpot!”
The slots in the ship’s casino are operated by buttons. In fact, the ship’s slots had no slots. There was instead a scanner under which you held your room card which had been pre-programmed with the credit card number which you, the guest, had authorized previous to embarkation. For efficiency sake, once a card had been scanned, you had the option of selecting how many “plays” you wanted to make. That way you needn’t distract yourself by constantly having to hold your card under the scanner. When you won, which is to say when the whirling images stopped whirling and most or all of them looked the same, your winnings were announced to great fanfare and flourish, and your card was credited with funds. Not to be unkind, but the slots were inhabited by mostly obese, middle aged women. Over the course of days, a Slot Tournament was held. The cumulative winning totals were kept on a white board for all who cared to see. None of the names seemed masculine.
The blackjack tables were more interesting to watch. While I cannot say we saw always the same people at the same tables and machines, we did see many of the same people. The tables worked on a cash basis. You handed the croupier/dealer cash (most often hundred dollar bills), and he or she handed you an equivalency of chips. The exchange was stylized and fun to watch. Also fun was The Shuffle. At all the black jack tables save one, the shoe held 416 cards. These cards were shuffled by hand, initially deck by deck. Then the decks were cut, left apart, and shuffled together randomly. That process was repeated three times. Finally, the stack was cut by means of a player being given a red card to insert into the deck. The deck was put back together, inserted in the shoe, but before play would commence, the red card was once again inserted, somewhere in what looked to me like the rear fifth of the deck. When that card made its way forward so to the point where it appeared too few cards to play another round, the shuffling began again. Each eight deck deck was retired periodically, but the timing for that eluded me.
The outlier table offered a one-deck blackjack game. For each hand, however, the deck was newly shuffled. The risks and rewards for that table were far greater, but I never saw the table in action.
On occasion we would find ourselves watching a dinner companion. For no reason I can offer, I found that surprising. Dinner conversations invariably were dissections of the day’s activities ashore, or, on the days we were at sea, plans for the upcoming port. Since many of the excursions had to do with going off by water or by air to watch whales, bear, or other wild life, those who had met success were looked on with good natured envy by the rest whose had come up empty or had chosen not to do more than explore the town. Dinner conversations never touched on the Casino.
One woman we met at dinner we were not surprised to see. She and her husband owned a wildfire fighting company in northern California. They were never not busy during the warmer months, especially since they and their equipment were ready to travel anywhere in the United States on little notice. Why we were not surprised to see her is this: she was originally from Colorado where she grew up on a ranch. Her father had not too long ago passed away and left her in sole possession of the ranch, which had been in their family for generations. In fact, her great-grandfather was the first registered owner of record, assuming the Native Americans who once thought of the land as more or less theirs did not bother with deeds and the like.
No doubt you know that the United States is about to become, if it hasn’t already, the number one oil producing country in the world. Much of the newly accessed oil is to be found in Colorado, and apparently – good news for the firefighting couple – a not inconsiderable portion of the Colorado oil is accessible from the their ranch. “At first,” she told us, “we’d get a check and see it as a lark, something that was fun to get. But we didn’t take it too seriously. But when, the checks kept coming and growing, we contacted the company we’d leased to. They told us there was no reason to think the oil wouldn’t keep coming out of the ground at the same rate for twenty or more years.” So seeing her at the blackjack table? Why not?
On the starboard side of the ship were various lounges where after dinner, music was played. In one, a duo played classical music on a piano and violin. Cute, but not in the end terribly satisfying. In the next forward, a piano player/singer held forth to a packed house every evening. Why I can’t say, for each time Edie and I chanced by, he was engaged in conversation with audience members. We never heard him sing. In the last, a trio played what was supposed to be dance music. We tried every once and again, but as someone on American Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record segment might have said, “I can’t dance to it ‘cause I can’t find the beat. I give it a 35.”
Forward most on Deck Five was the theater where each night was presented live entertainment: three performances (shows) at 6:30 (too early), 8:00 (while we were at dinner), and 10:00 (when we were comfortably tucked in for the night). We did catch the closing minutes of a few shows when the 8 o’clock ran a little long. On the penultimate night of the cruise we finally ate early enough to see a comic. He was very entertaining and lived up to his reputation as a comedian suitable for the entire family, which is to say he found no need to punctuate his routine with a multitude of f-bombs and the like.
Also on Deck Five were the shops, such as they were. One sold articles of clothing, either souvenir T-shirts or warm jackets and sweatshirts which sold very well as most passengers found themselves suffering by having assumed that summer in Alaska is like summer in most other parts of the Union. That shop also carried men’s dress socks, but you had to ask. I know this because I had to ask.
The other shop sold jewelry. As much as anything else, the jewelry selling was also part of the entertainment. Each night, something of little or no value was raffled off, but the winner entered automatically into a drawing for a chance to win a $15,000 dollar yellow emerald necklace.
The only entertainment Holland America couldn’t figure out how to include in the evening program were the art auctions. Those were held during the afternoons when the ship was at sea. As to the art, you cannot imagine.
Unpredictably, each evening ended with a small but distinct pleasure. When we returned to our cabin, quite apart from being soothed to find the beds turned down, the reading lights lit, ice bucket filled, and two chocolates left on the foot of the bed with the best wishes of the captain and entire crew for a good night’s sleep, our steward created and placed on the bed a whimsy, a fantastical creature made from hand towels and two button eyes. Now, that’s entertainment.