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Civilians Can Cruise With Navy

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How about a cruise ship without bartenders, bands, entertainment, waiters, gift shops, gourmet meals and midnight buffets? And most of the time without women!

Such ships exist, Navy vessels that offer civilians a taste of how the military lives.

Voyages are for about a week and generally are for men only. Women guests are allowed to cruise only if the naval vessel has women as part of its crew.

What you need is a sponsor from the ship, $5 a day for meals and proof that you’re at least 8 years old.

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The Navy’s tiger cruise program is available on any naval vessel, depending on ship schedules.

I sailed on the Juneau , an amphibious-assault ship designed to put 800 Marines and their equipment ashore by helicopter or landing craft.

Our destination was Alaska’s capital, Juneau. And while 650 sailors and Marines arriving in a city of 30,000 amounted to an invasion, local hospitality ensured that it was a friendly takeover.

During the five-day cruise from San Diego, civilian guests, called “tigers,” were accommodated in the same manner as their sponsors.

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With the good fortune to have been sponsored by an officer, I was one of four in a cabin with two triple tiers of bunks, individual lockers and the luxury of two writing desks and a wash basin, all in the color gray.

Tigers sponsored by enlisted personnel were stacked four high, with tiny lockers, in the crew’s living spaces--common areas crossed by passageways, holding up to 100 men. On a cruise ship this would be equivalent to having a hammock in the hallway.

Other than the lack of portholes and the monochromatic color scheme, guests enjoy first-class treatment.

The air is just as bracing, the Pacific Ocean just as majestic and the dolphins just as playful seen from the deck of a naval vessel as from a luxury liner.

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The menu is balanced, if not gourmet, served to officers in a paneled dining room on linen tablecloths, cafeteria-style in the enlisted mess.

Tucked into tiny spaces throughout the ship are a library, a barber shop and “the mall,” a tiny ship’s store for sundries.

Guests can jog (11 laps around the flight deck adds up to a mile), so there is no need for high-tech exercise machines. The Navy works 24 hours a day to keep its ships in shape at sea and the Juneau was sparkling.

That’s quite a trick when brass is constantly exposed to rain and saltwater spray. And if you remember withering looks from Mom after smudging her freshly-waxed linoleum with wet boots, imagine the same reaction from a 6-foot-2 Marine.

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Guests have the run of the ship, and can wander anywhere from the engineering spaces well below decks to the bridge, where they can take the wheel, if conditions permit, and find out how fast 24,000 horsepower can push 17,000 tons.

There are other activities on board Navy ships not available to the average cruise ship passenger.

The Juneau sailed with four other naval vessels, which practiced “leapfrogging” defensive maneuvers in heavy seas. The Marines gave daily equipment displays, so that guests could squeeze inside an M-60 tank one day and watch gun crews fire the World War II guns on another.

Despite having 30 civilians, ages 8 to 68, wandering around underfoot, every crew member was a gracious host. Each explained his duties, answered questions and made each guest feel welcome.

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The tradition of hospitality began in 1880, when prospectors Joe Juneau and Richard T. Harris gave up after a perfunctory search for gold, and Chief Kowee of the Auk Tlingits convinced them to return and pointed them in the right direction, leading to a multimillion-dollar mining boom that peaked in 1915.

Nine years earlier Juneau had become the state capital, and today its major employers are state government, commercial fishing and tourism.

Juneau is in the Alaska panhandle on the placid waters of Gastineau Channel, where pine-covered slopes are capped by snow even in July.

The first look at the picturesque city between steep 3,500-foot peaks and the fine deep-water port makes it clear why Juneau’s frontier atmosphere and natural beauty draw more than 350,000 visitors each year.

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All must arrive by sea or air (no roads connect Juneau to the rest of the 49th state) so it’s no surprise that one-third of the citizenry are boat owners and one out of seven has a pilot’s license.

Despite the vast glaciers that surround the city, summer temperatures are comfortably between 45 and 70 degrees and showers can be expected, although there was no rain during our five-day stay, and the skies were cloudless during four of them.

At Juneau’s high latitude that means about 18 hours of bright sunshine between dusklike midnights.

Our ship’s welcome began with a helicopter trailing a banner reading, “Welcome Home, USS Juneau . " A mayor’s delegation with Marine honor guard and bagpiper met us at the pier. (The city was in the midst of a drive for funds to erect a memorial to the first Juneau , which was torpedoed in the Solomon Islands during World War II and went down with 700 men.)

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In any case, visitors will find the people of Juneau open, friendly and proud of their city.

Although Juneau’s far-flung limits, encompassing more than 3,100 square miles, make it the city with the largest area in the nation, most of it is wilderness.

Everything in town is within walking distance of the harbor, including the governor’s mansion and the excellent Alaska State Museum.

The display detailing Juneau’s mining days is built like an 1880s assay office, a full-size Tlingit long house highlights native artifacts and a two-story spiral ramp surrounds a lifelike eagle’s nest.

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South Franklin Street has many historic buildings, including the gold rush-era Red Dog Saloon where Wyatt Earp once checked his guns.

Present-day patrons can belly up and sample locally-brewed, award-winning Chinook beer, which proclaims on every bottle: “Made with the finest ingredients available at the time.”

Two of the most beautiful churches are outside of town. The half century-old Shrine of St. Terese sits on its own island surrounded by tall pines, connected to the mainland by a rock causeway.

The Chapel by the Lake is a log-cabin church with a picture window behind the altar that provides churchgoers with a marvelous view of Mendenhall glacier.

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The glacier is an easy 10 minute drive from downtown--by car or city bus. The visitor center offers spectacular views of the glacier, ice floes on Mendenhall Lake and the towering mountains.

Half a mile beyond and about 300 yards past the sign that says, “No Hiking Beyond This Point,” the “Because It Was There” crowd can leave their footprints on the 1,500 square mile river of ice.

Any hike in the Juneau area is rewarding, with many trail heads starting at the ends of downtown streets. You’re also likely to find lots of wildlife.

Black bears have been sighted on city streets, migrating whales make frequent appearances in the narrow waterways and bald eagles dive for salmon in the channel or nest in the tallest pines overlooking such rocky beaches as Outer Point.

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And while Juneau’s shores don’t offer the uninterrupted sand of Southern California beaches, midnight sunbathers can catch more rays in a single Alaska summer day than they could in a long weekend at Santa Monica.

For the more adventurous, float planes will give you an Adm. Byrd’s-eye view of the spectacular landscape, or a sightseeing helicopter will whisk you to the top of a glacier and put you on ice.

You can take a float trip down the meandering waters of the icy Mendenhall River or go deep-sea fishing for some of Alaska’s deliciously famous king salmon.

Even if you don’t reel in your own, the Gold Creek Mine salmon bake is a real treat. For about $16, it’s an all you can eat feast.

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The salmon is broiled on a huge open-pit grill, basted with brown sugar and butter sauce. Having traveled no more than a couple of miles from the ocean to table, it is fresh enough to literally melt in diner’s mouths.

After dinner you can explore the extensive grounds and abandoned machinery of the Gold Creek Mine or pan for gold in a roaring mountain stream.

If you’re in town for Independence Day, the fireworks’ glittering reflection in the bay is sensational, and even at midnight it’s still light enough for the scenery to lend a majestic backdrop.

But whenever you visit this frontier town you’ll find vistas to admire, adventures to retell and memories to last a lifetime.

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The Navy has a variety of programs that offer civilians short voyages. Participation is by getting a congressman as a sponsor, by contacting the naval base commander in your area or by being the dependant of a sailor on sea duty.

For more information, call Juneau Visitor Information, (907) 586-2201, or contact the Alaska Division of Tourism, Department of Commerce and Economic Development, P.O. Box E, Juneau 99811; (907) 465-2010.


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