The first MacMania Geek Cruise has now sailed into the sunset, and I’ve had a few days to digest what was a truly fascinating experience. We sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia, on 27-May-02, headed out into the Pacific to zip up to Alaska, and then worked our way back down through the Inside Passage, stopping at Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan before arriving back in Vancouver seven days later. The days at sea were filled with a variety of conference sessions; we had the days on land to ourselves.
The People — The most enjoyable aspect of the trip was meeting Mac folks, both on and off the ship. The day before the cruise left, Derek Miller, a frequent contributor to TidBITS Talk and author of several TidBITS articles, organized an extremely enjoyable lunch for other TidBITS Talk members and MacMania speakers in Vancouver. A few days later, Peter Anderegg, a TidBITS reader and former tour guide, spent an afternoon showing us around the parts of Juneau that tour buses could never visit. Top on Tristan’s list was the Last Chance Basin Mining Museum, thanks to their collection of decrepit mining trains (you can see pictures of our time in Vancouver and Juneau below). In the evening, we accompanied Peter to the Juneau Macintosh user group meeting, a barbecue held on the shore of the stunningly beautiful Auke Bay Recreation Area. The barbecued halibut and salmon was delicious, the conversation stimulating, and the wind bracing. David Pogue spoke animatedly about the wonders of Mac OS X, John de Lancie (an actor known for more than just playing "Q" on Star Trek) mingled and posed graciously for the Star Trek fans, and a good time was had by all.
Back on the ship, the level of conviviality and friendliness was exceeded only by the MacHack developers’ conference, which has sixteen years of history and shared experience to draw upon. Nevertheless, after MacMania’s first day or so, faces became familiar, names were attached (thanks to ever-present name tags), and most people had relaxed into a comfortable co-existence. The key, I think, as with MacHack, was a shared space where we could all gather with PowerBooks and iBooks and partake of the wireless network with satellite-based Internet access. The Internet access was expensive ($100 for the week), but for a technical conference it was essential, and those who had never experienced the geek-filled lobby of the Holiday Inn Fairlane in Dearborn, Michigan during MacHack were astonished to find just how enjoyable it is to hang out and chat with other Mac users while reading mail, browsing the Web, or organizing photos of the day.
The pleasure was perhaps even greater for Tonya and me, since we’ve been friends with so many of the other speakers for years, but it was also great to meet new people and get to know some of those whose work we’ve followed for years. A special treat was meeting Phil Russell of the Corvallis, Oregon, Macintosh user group, whose tips column in their Mouse Droppings newsletter we’ve enjoyed for years. John de Lancie, after he realized a Macintosh conference would be less stressful than a Star Trek convention, loosened up and proved to be both an interesting conversationalist and good with kids (one night when we met him at the elevators, he picked Tristan up and "flew" him all the way through the ship’s casino to the dining room).
The Conference — The conference itself was basically what you’d expect, a bunch of sessions on a variety of topics and presented by many of the people with whose names you’ve become familiar over the years. My impression is that the quality of the sessions was on par with those at other conferences. What set the conference apart from the pack, though, was the chance to interact with the speakers (or, from my perspective, the audience) outside the actual session time.
The talks I deliver at Macworld Expo, for instance, are essentially the same as those I gave at MacMania, but at Macworld, after the Q&A session ends, I generally have to dash off to another appointment or presentation. So although attendees generally get their questions answered, there’s simply no time for more in-depth conversation, which proved both easy and commonplace for most of the speakers during MacMania.
The Cruise — Of course, the fact that distinguished MacMania from all other Macintosh conferences was the venue aboard the ms Volendam, a Holland America cruise ship carrying about 1,400 passengers. The concept was great – who wouldn’t like to go on a cruise? – but the reality was less appealing. Our cruise was free in exchange for my speaking on six different occasions, but Tonya and I decided we would be unlikely to seek out a similar cruise for our own vacation plans.
The main problem, as we learned, is that different cruise lines cater to different demographic groups. Holland America, it seems, targets folks over 50, and the assumption that the average guest is nearing retirement age means that those of us in our mid-30s with a small child found ourselves constantly at odds with the way things were done. The kids program wouldn’t accommodate children under five, there was no place other than room service to get food from 5:00 PM to 6:00 PM (when it seemed we always needed a bite to prevent either a mother or child breakdown while waiting for dinner at 8:00 PM), the room service menu had no options for children, and so on. That’s not to say that Tristan wasn’t welcome – both staff and other folks on the boat were extremely nice to him – but the ship simply isn’t set up for young families.
Personally, my biggest problem was that smoking was allowed in many areas of the ship, and the combination of smoke and the lingering odor of room freshener was a constant irritation. I was also restricted to running on treadmills thanks to a no running policy on the perfectly nice outside loop around a lower deck. Rough seas the first full day laid Tonya low, made me feel woozy, and turned an otherwise boring treadmill run dangerous. The food, although a solid effort considering the vast numbers of people being served, was nothing special (but you could order as much as you wanted).
On the plus side, the service was exemplary, thanks to the ship’s primarily Indonesian crew. Our room steward must have been part elf, to judge from the way our toy-strewn room was magically cleaned and organized twice a day, and Tristan was utterly taken with the concept of finding a chocolate on his pillow each night before bed. The ever-smiling wait staff was equally as good, whisking unnecessary bits of silverware away after you ordered and being constantly available without hovering.
The ports of call were mixed. We had a fabulous time in Juneau with Peter Anderegg, and in Skagway we took a three-hour train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad that offered amazing scenery for us and the chance to be in a railroad passenger car for Tristan, who’s currently in a train phase. But the towns of Skagway and Ketchikan in particular seemed to be little more than tourist traps (the population of Skagway is nowhere near as large as the number of passengers disembarking from the two or three cruise ships that appear regularly), with an odd combination of cheap schlock and high-end jewelry store chains (seeing a Diamonds International and a Little Switzerland store in each town bordered on the surreal). I’m sure the stores do a good business, and I presume they’ve figured out exactly what the kind of people who take cruises want to buy, but we were still bothered by the overwhelming emphasis on shopping, especially for goods unrelated to the location.
The scenic highlight of the cruise was our slow sweep through Glacier Bay, where a trip down a mountain-bordered fjord ends at a pair of glaciers inching down to the water. Alaska’s mountains, though craggy and appropriately covered with snow, weren’t all that different from the Cascade mountain range we’d become accustomed to while living in Seattle, but nothing prepared us for the sheer size and grandeur of the glaciers. We spent several hours within a few hundred meters of Margerie Glacier (scale is hard to estimate near glaciers, since they’re so large), punctuating our amazed staring with exclamations of delight every time a large mass of ice calved off into the slushy water below.
Future Events — If you missed this first MacMania Geek Cruise, you can sign up for MacMania II, scheduled for 01-Jun-03 through 08-Jun-03 in Hawaii. It will be a bit different from the first MacMania – aside from the change in venue from Alaska to Hawaii, it’s being held aboard a ship run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, which may cater to a somewhat different demographic than Holland America. Plus, the conference will apparently focus more on "visual arts" and Perl on the Mac. I wasn’t asked to speak at MacMania II (and flying to Hawaii is an incredibly long trip from upstate New York) but many of the other speakers will be the same.
What MacMania proves, at least to my mind, is that there’s room for more of what I’d call "destination conferences," where everyone stays in the same place and the talks are only part of the attraction. The general location might be part of the draw, along with activities that would allow an entire family to come. Most essential, though, would be a low-key public area in which attendees can congregate for Internet access when not in session. I’ll bet there are a variety of resorts that would fit the bill, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see additional conferences popping up to cater to groups like the Macintosh community, which tends to be both social and technical.