Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Love Boats

Place: Taco John's
Lunch: Four tacos (mild sauce), small Super Ole's (no tomato, no guac), Pepsi

Ohhh I'm sleepy.  Had to be at work at five.  Which thanks to daylight savings time feels more like four.  Which means I was up at what felt like three.  The cats were all like "Why are you feeding us at three in the morning?"  I don't see why I have to understand Daylight Savings Time if my cats don't.

Once upon a time in a land far far away, I lived in a dreary rainy island town that relied on fishing, logging, and tourism.  It was a town I really really hated.  But as much as I hated the place, it did make for a childhood with unique experiences that would later become stories to tell.  And some of those stories came from the cruise ships that filled downtown with visitors each summer.

Today, I will share with you my cruise ship stories as we mourn TV's official "Love Boat".  The ship once known as the Pacific Princess is to be scrapped.  I not only knew her from television...I knew her personally.

Stanley McDonald founded Princess in the mid sixties.   The jet age was in its infancy and passenger ships, at the time used merely for transportation, were evolving into floating vacation resorts.  McDonald chartered a ship from Canadian Pacific for winter cruises between Los Angeles and Acapulco when the ship would otherwise be laid up.  The ship, the Princess Patricia, was where Princess Cruises took its name from.

Princess Pat only served the charter for a couple of years as it proved under-suited to the task (lacking air conditioning for one thing).  Princess then chartered the newly built and much grander Italia, which was marketed as (but never officially named) "Princess Italia", a ship much more suited to modern cruising.  This was the first ship to have the Princess sea witch logo on her funnel.   In an oddball publicity stunt, her maiden voyage also served as a premiere tour of the film "Valley of the Dolls".  You can watch a feature about it on the Criterion "Valley of the Dolls" release and see footage of the ship.

When the Italia charter ended, it was replaced by Costa's "Carla C", which Princess marketed as "Princess Carla".  It was on this ship that Princess cruise director Jeraldine Saunders started writing a book called "Love Boats".

Princess was sold to British cruise and shipping operator P&O in 1974.  P&O's Spirit of London, a ship originally started for another cruise line that went bankrupt during the construction process, was transferred to Princess.  This ship became the original Sun Princess.  P&O then acquired two ships from Flagship Cruises...the Island Venture and the Sea Venture...which were renamed the Island Princess and the Pacific Princess respectively. 

These were the three ships that became known around the world as the Love Boats.

(Fun side fact you probably didn't realize...Princess didn't purpose-build a ship until Royal Princess in 1984.)

Island Princess and Sun Princess were among the many ships that made our town a regular port of call (Pacific Princess showed up once or twice a year).  Cunard, Holland America, Carnival, Costa, and even CP Line's Princess Pat, the ship from which Princess took its name, made regular appearances through the summer.

I had a couple of jobs that got me official access to some of the ships.  I had a gig as a cadence drummer for a baton twirling group, and we'd occasionally greet a ship when it came into port.  Then we'd get a ship tour.  I also worked for the local paper, who printed visitors guides.  I would deliver boxes of the guides to the ships.  Depending on the ship, the guy manning the gangway would either take them and thank you, or send you to the purser's office.  If you got to the purser's office, you were on board and could wander around for awhile.  I once wrote my grandparents a letter on Princess letterhead from one of the Sun Princess's lounges while overlooking the narrows.

Some of the ships didn't have much going on in the form of security (Princess was not among them) and you could just walk on board.  This was routine for local kids.  Go on board, wander around, go through the lunch buffet line, steal everything that had a company logo on it that wasn't nailed down...

Ship quality varied not only by age, but by line.  The Cunard ships were modern purpose-built cruise ships, but weren't the nicest.  They seemed to look dated pretty quickly.  Holland America ships were better.  Some of the older ships, designed for simple transport long before modern cruising was ever thought of, were horrible...clearly from another time.  Some smelled.  One ship was openly known as the "cockroach boat" by even the crew.

The Princess ships were among the finest on the seas, and the Island Princess and Pacific Princess were as good as it got with luxurious public areas and amenities.  They were about as big a ship as you could dock locally (a few larger ships who called had to anchor in the bay and ferry passengers in and out on cutters).  The Sun Princess was smaller and wasn't quite on par with luxury or some of the amenities of its bigger sister ships, but was still better than average, and it is to this day my favorite ship design from an exterior standpoint.  With its long sweeping bow and sleek sloping curves, it had a very unique look shared only by its twin sister (which was sold to another company by the builder).

The modern cruise industry was doing fine in its infancy, but nothing like it did once "The Love Boat" hit the airwaves.  That was the catalyst that REALLY popularized cruising to mainstream audiences.

What you saw on television didn't really translate the true grandeur of the ships...the interiors were shot in a studio mockup.  Exteriors of ports of call and ships arriving were shot by a minimal traveling crew.  Our downtown was featured in a single episode with a roughly three-second pan shot, plus some footage of two ships arriving at our docks, and I happened to be there when they filmed it.

I was down at the docks hanging out, as bored kids sometimes did (either checking out the ships or trading fish they'd caught that morning with crew members from the big Japanese lumber ships docked at the spruce mill in exchange for Japanese cigarettes and Coca Cola...long skinny cigarettes, long skinny Coke cans), and I saw a man and a woman with a film camera on a tripod.  A real film camera, not a touristy one.  So I wandered over.  They were shooting some shots for the series, and they were more than happy to have me and the few others who noticed them hang out and chat.  They were waiting for one of the ships to arrive (either the Island Princes or Pacific Princess...one was already docked) so they could capture it for the show.  That in itself was an event...the Pacific Princess was NOT a regular caller, let alone having the twins in the same place.

The second ship arrived...and docked in the wrong direction.  This was pointed out to the cruise director, who came off the ship to see if the crew got what they needed.  (No, they didn't pull out and re-dock.)

As they chatted, a passenger among the masses disembarking noticed us and wandered over to see what was going on.  I stepped aside to explain.  He was keenly interested, and at some point one of the locals among us paused and said "Hey...Aren't you Arte Johnson?"

You know...Laugh-In's Arte Johnson?

And he WAS.  A real television star.  On a cruise.  Just as interested in what was going on as we locals were.

He was a grand presence and funny guy who was only too happy to chat and cut jokes before jumping on a sightseeing bus.  The cruise director told us he was having a blast and had been really good about interacting with the passengers.  He struck me as a guy who really appreciated his place in life and enjoyed his fame and fans.

As the years went by, the industry grew, evolved, and innovated.  Fleets got bigger, ships got bigger, as did all the amenities and luxuries that go in them.  Ships that were once massive wonders became small and dated.  Princess never rested on its laurels, and eventually the original Love Boats were sold off to smaller companies.

Sun Princess was the first to go in 1988.  It served several other cruise lines under several different names in several different paint schemes.  It was sold for scrap, but the deal fell through, and it sat anchored off Port Klang for a couple of years in a sorry state, unwanted, awaiting its fate.  Incredibly, it found its way back into service as the Ocean Dream sailing cruises between China and Vietnam, then China and Thailand.  Her last owners went insolvent and the crew anchored and  abandoned the ship off the coast of Thailand somewhere around 2014 or 2015.  She took on water and capsized February, 2016., laying on her side in shallow waters, half submerged.  Last available word was they had started cutting her apart for scrap right where she lay.  A sad and undeserved end to a 40-plus year career.  Her twin sister that went to another company, MV Southward, was scrapped in 2013.

Princess is now operating its second Sun Princess, built in 1995.  A Love Boat revival television series starring Robert Urich ("Love Boat - The Next Wave" - UPN 1998-1999) featured the new Sun Princess.

Island Princess left the Princess fleet in 1999.  It sailed for years as the Discovery, sailing the Baltic, Aegean, and Mediterranean, apparently.  After being sold again and given one more season, she was scrapped at Alang in 2015.

Princess is currently operating its second Island Princess, built in 2003.

Pacific Princess, the focus ship of the Love Boat series, left the Princess fleet in 2002.  Renamed Pacific, it sailed for a few companies for several years before being seized for nonpayment of repair bills.  It sat idle at Genoa for a couple of years.  In 2012, it was announced the ship had been sold to a Turkish scrapper.  That original widely publicized deal that sparked this blog post fell through and she sat for another year before being sold again and finally towed to Turkey, where she took on water and was hurriedly beached listing at an alarming 45 degree angle.  The scrappers pumped out the water (not without incident...two people died) and cut her apart.

Princess is currently operating its second Pacific Princess, a ship built in 1999 for Renaissance Cruises and launched as the R Three.  It was re-christened Pacific Princess in 2002.  It's small...the smallest ship in the Princess lineup... compared to today's behemoths, but has been described as 'cozy' and 'elegant'.

Suddenly find yourself interested in old ships? Check out Simplon Postcards for old pictures and information on ships of days gone by.

I've never taken a cruise.  Probably never will.

But I'll never forget the Love Boats.

(Final fate of ships updated in 2017)

(The Love Boat episode referred to is a two-parter...episodes 22 and 23 from Season 5, "Pride of the Pacific / The Viking's Son / Separate Vacations / The Experiment / Getting to Know You."  It's two hours of the most godawful dumb television ever made.)

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Auto Show 2012

Place: Taco Time
Lunch (no...dinner): Crispy taco (no tomato), crispy chicken burrito, cheddar fries, Coke

It's Auto Show weekend again.  As longtime readers know, the normal routine is to get up at 4, drive to the Twin Cities, have White Castle for breakfast, and head to the convention center.  But this year I headed up the night before with the intention of sleeping in.  That didn't work out so well.  I was up at 4 anyway.  How my internal clock knew it was Auto Show day I'll never know.

So I had my White Castle breakfast early and went back to the hotel and dozed.  Which probably still was better than wandering around the show floor after an early four-hour drive.

Side note to those who have previously recommended Potbelly Sandwich Works to me...I had dinner there last night.  You're all wrong.  Very very wrong.  More wrong than you were with your first marriage wrong.  Lousy sandwich, particularly the bread.  Lousy staff.  The interior decor and the two-story facade was pretty impressive, though.  All style, no substance.

I got to the show about ten minutes before opening.  There were two (really long) lines...one to buy tickets, and one to get in after you bought tickets.  The line to get in took me into areas of the convention center I've never been in before.  I'd never seen lines like this, but several of us discussing the issue figured out it was because they limited the show to one entrance this year.  Anyway, things moved quickly and we were all in ten minutes after opening.

So what's new and noteworthy this year?

Ford Escape - Ford's all-new second generation 2013 Escape (the current body design was just a restyle of the original platform) was here, but not accessible.  Still, people were keenly interested.  The original really set the tone for the future CUV market and has been one of Ford's biggest sellers, and the new one is a radical redesign.  Unless you're comparing it to the Nissan Rogue or Hyundai Tucson, because it looks just like those.  Ironic, I know.  Now it's Toyota's turn to play catch-up.  The RAV4 is seriously long in the tooth.

Mazda CX-5 - This replaces the Mazda Tribute, which was basically a re-badged Ford Escape.  Mazda claims the CX-5 uses their "SkyActiv" engine technology, an efficient design that leads to "better hwy MPG than any SUV, including hybrid".  Sits nice, but looks and feels pretty ordinary.

Mini Cooper Coupe - So why didn't they just call this a "Mini Couper"?  HA HA HA HA HA! Really liked the two-tone black-and-white interior styling.

Volkswagen Beetle - My first car was a black '74 Super Beetle with red vinyl seats.  When VW displayed the all-new 2012 Beetle last year, one of the first they showed was a black turbo with black and red leather seats.  And a cool three-pod instrument cluster on the dash.  I wanted one immediately.  One with the turbo engine, all the features, and a six-speed manual transmission.  So did a lot of VW fans.  Flash forward to today.  The new Bug has been on dealer lots for a few months, and almost none of them have have manual transmissions or anything close to the configuration of that launch show car.  Those who have bought what's available are complaining about the usual VW quality issues that are completely inexcusable in today's market.  VW continues to do everything they can to alienate their core fan base.

But this was my first chance to sit in one, and I liked it.  A lot.

Volkswagen Touraeg - A car this expensive should have keyless push-button start, not some goofy fancy plastic key you have to insert.  Idiots.

Volkswagen Tiguan - The Tig got a style refresh that improved the exterior and a re-programmed transmission that improves gas mileage.  The leather seats are very nice in this.  And, unlike the Touraeg, you CAN get this with keyless push-button start.

Volkswagen GTI - Oh wow.  Classic GTI logo.  Classic cloth seats with retro plaid inserts.  And four doors.  Wait...what?

Audi Q5 - No ignition, and no dedicated start switch that I could find.  Wonder how that works.  Also couldn't figure out how to adjust the steering wheel.  Might be a programmable command in the digital controls. 

Porsche Panamera - Porsche now has a four-door sedan.  It's huge and grand and you can sit relatively comfortable in the back., but it's not the easiest to get in and out of.  It rides low in a way that reminds me of the Ford Pinto.

Porsche Cayenne - The Touraeg's sister has the same stupid ignition switch and more buttons in the center console than a Chevy Traverse.  More on that later.

Infiniti FX35 - I rented one of these last year and, while there's lots of luxury, there's also lots of shared Nissan parts.  The overhead console with the dome lights, sunglasses holder, and sunroof controls is the exact same unit in my Rogue.  So are the window and lock controls.  So when driving it, it felt a lot like driving my Nissan.  Except it felt way bigger and way heavier and way less efficient, even though it's really not that much bigger.  Plus I hate the analog clock, and the instrument lighting was a near exact replica of Hyundai's.  Who would spend the money on this over, say, a Murano?

Infinity EX - The smaller luxury crossover.  Felt cramped and had the same styling issues I noted for the FX35.

Lexus - Lexus brought its limited edition supercar, the LFA.  It has a 552hp V10, goes from 0-60 in 3.6 seconds, has a top speed of 202mph, and only weighs around 3000 pounds thanks to extensive use of carbon fiber in the body.  They're only making 500 of them.  Grab your check book and write out "$375,000" before they're gone.

Scion iQ - Scion has a Smart car knockoff now.  Center console has dials stacked like the Mitsubishi electric car.  I started my own personal Auto Show game while sitting in it by keeping track of the number of deep Minnesota accents saying "Oh it's so TINY".

Some random guy on the floor..."Where's Saab?  I was told Saab would be back this year."  Dude, Saab is DONE.  Out of business.  Over.  Fin.

Fiat - Fiat brought pretty much everything they had...the 500 Pop, 500 Sport, 500c, 500c Gucci Edition, and forthcoming 500 Abarth (pronounced "uh-bart" according to Cute Showgirl Model).  It would have been awesome if they brought 500 500's, but not terribly practical.  They made up for this by offering test drives.  AT THE SHOW.  You BET I did.

The tester was a 500 Sport.  The test drive route, which went from the back of the convention center around the property, down to I-94, then winding back, was a pretty good mix of winding roads and freeway.  The ride was great and did nothing to dissuade my desire to have one of these.  Regular driving mode was fine, but pushing the sport button not only changed the transmission to perform more hot, it actually tightened steering.  You could actually feel steering response tighten up.  MOST impressive.  The Fiat Sales Girl in the passenger seat kept trying to show me color options on her iPad.  WHILE I'M DRIVING.

Kia - The big showcase for Kia on their turntable?  The Sorento!  Which looks unchanged from the Sorento we've had for the past couple of years already.  They did have a really cool custom (not for sale) Blake Griffin model Optima there, complete with a cutout Blake Griffin.  Some old guy..."Who's Blake Griffin?"

Hyundai - Hyundai's big showcase was the new Equus full-size luxury sedan.  The name reminded me of the Dos Equis guy.  "I don't always drive cars.  But when I do, I sure as hell don't drive Hyundais."  They were also showcasing the hybrid Elantra, which seemed like a nice enough car.

Subaru - Subaru was also offering test drives.  Which is about as exciting as it got for them.

GM - I didn't pay all that much attention, but the focus vehicle seemed to be the new Sonic.  I didn't even see a Volt, but I may have missed it.  They had the refreshed 2013 GMC Acadia, which now has a front end that looks more like the Terrain's.  I recently had its sister vehicle, the Chevrolet Traverse, as a rental.  What a ridiculous vehicle.  It doesn't handle any better than the Tahoe.  It has some of the worst rear visibility I've ever experienced (thankfully compensated for with a rear view camera mounted in the rear view mirror AND a beeping warning sensor).  The center stack has no less than 49 buttons or toggles, four just for the trip computer.  The instrument cluster...almost unreadable when driving into a sunset...has two chrome-trimmed pods shaped like sad puppy eyes.  Who wants to drive around in a vehicle with sad puppy eyes staring back at you all the time?

Nissan - The big showcase for Nissan was their new commercial truck division.  Full size vans and panel trucks that can be converted into anything from standard delivery vehicles to ambulances.  With Nissan's build quality and reliability record, companies should be taking a serious look at these.

Car-wise, not much to report.  We should get a new Altima next year, and maybe a new Rogue.  The Leaf was here again and was as popular as it was last year.  Have you ever seen Nissan's minivan?  It's so UGLY.  It's as if the designers were thinking "You suck for driving a minivan, so we're going to punish you by making the ugliest minivan possible".

Three hours later, that's about it.

Guess I'll go enjoy the sunshine.

Did I mention it's 65 degrees and sunny out?

Not bad for a Minnesota winter.