Friday, October 23, 2009
Living it Up at the Hotel Golden Princess
Photo by Janice Crowl
Last Friday I had a rather surreal experience: my first time aboard a cruise ship. I'd written about the impacts of the cruise industry before, but I'd never had the opportunity to go on such a vessel.
The occasion wasn't a cruise, however. My love, Janice, is a Master Gardener who'd been active in fostering gardens in the schools; in honor of that, she'd gotten two free tickets to a luncheon called "Seeds of Hope," which celebrated the School Garden Network and publicized the need for food sustainability.
School gardens and sustainability are both causes that I heartily endorse. As a whole slough of local politicians pointed out at the beginning of the event, this state imports an estimated 80-90 percent of what its population eats; if the barges ever stop coming from California, we're in deep do-do. And the first step to changing that state of dependence is to teach people how to grow food. (For a fuller description of what was said at the luncheon, see "Planting the Seeds of Hope in the Future" in the current edition of the Big Island Weekly.)
Apparently Princess Cruises wants to be associated with those causes, too, because they offered to host the luncheon aboard the Golden Princess while it was docked in Hilo Harbor.
Still, it seemed a bit of a weird setting for such a luncheon, because cruise ships in general are pretty much the opposite of sustainability. A cruise ship's idling engines can easily churn out the exhaust equivalent of 10,000 cars (see previous entry, "A Lack of Cruise Control"). It burns thousands of gallons of fuel to push the equivalent of a 14-story hotel from port to port. (See previous entry) A paper in UH-Hilo's academic journal H0hono cited a state study that said the cruise ship industry had created "7,569 jobs with wages totaling $250 million for Hawai‘i workers" in 2004 ("Riding Tourism's New Wave") -- but the state study apparently relied on stats provided by the cruise industry itself, which is in direct competition with local hotels, so I'm not at all sure that the net gain is all that high. And certainly we saw no signs of direct employment while we were aboard. We saw Nepali security guards, Mexican and Filipino waiters, Aussie tour guides and a Croatian crewman, but not a single local person who was not a guest.
I'm not exaggerating when I say "14 story hotel." The ship has 17 decks, three of which are below water level and off limits. After the luncheon (featuring Alaskan salmon and vegetables that I strongly suspect were not grown locally), we were offered a tour of the ship. We took elevators up to Deck 16, which held, among other things, two swimming pools, a miniature golf course and a chess board big enough for life-sized pieces. Deck 17 was a split-level disco (I guess if you counted the upper level of the disco, it would be 18 decks). The ship also has a very hotel-like, multi-story central foyer, a casino (so much for Hawai'i's anti-gambling laws), a theater, a video arcade, an internet cafe, numerous bars and restaurants, and a decor that very much reminded me of the Hilton Waikoloa: a kind of luxuriously ostentatious chintziness, a celebration of excess without a lot of taste that featured lots of mediocre art work (especially paintings of Mediterranean scenes) and brightly colored carpets. But instead of a "Grand Canal," there was Hilo Bay. I must admit that the views of Hilo Bay from Deck 17 were splendid. But if this had been a hotel on land, it would have been too tall for the island's zoning codes.
In fact, the Golden Princess was so hotel-like that I had very little sense of being on a ship at all. Almost all the stuff that makes this a ship is hidden behind mysterious doors (sorry, bulkheads) marked "crew only." Our cheerful young Australian tour guides took us through the restaurants and casino and disco and past the swimming pools, but we didn't get to visit the bridge or to see the great diesel engines that drive this behemoth. The sides of the Golden Princess go pretty much straight up and down, like a land hotel's; instead of portholes, the guest rooms (sorry, staterooms) have balconies. After the tour, we went exploring on our own, and tried to get forward to the bow, but found no way to get there on a surface deck: the superstructure goes almost to the front of the ship. If Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to cry "I'm the king of the world!" on the Golden Princess, I think he'd have to do it from the front of the Deck 7 Promenade.
The Promenade, not featured in the tour, was actually the only place on the ship that did feel vaguely like a ship. We got to look over the rails at the water far below, and to walk beneath the hanging lifeboats and see the winches that held them in place. I think if I were ever condemned to take an actual cruise on such a ship, I'd spend a lot of time on the promenade. Not that I'm ever likely to find myself in that position. If I had the money, I'd find a better way to spend it.
And I'm sure tourists could find a better way to spend their money in Hawai'i, too. I didn't see anything aboard the Golden Princess that couldn't be had at a land-based hotel, except possibly gambling and seasickness. And the food we got on ship was good, but you could get a better meal at Cafe Pesto. Tourists would leave a lot more money in the local economy if they stayed at local hotel, ate at local restaurants and took the Hele On bus instead of tour buses. And they'd see a lot more of Hawai'i.